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Professor R. (Bob) F. Churchhouse CBE


Professor R. F. Churchhouse CBE (Bob Churchhouse) was born on December 30, 1927 and brought up in Manchester where he won a scholarship to study mathematics at the Victoria University. His teachers included Max Newman and Alan Turing, both now famous for their work at Bletchley Park in World War II.

Following his undergraduate degree at Manchester he proceeded to Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he worked towards, and was awarded, a PhD in number theory under the guidance of one of the leading number theorists of his day, Professor Mordell.

Following this, in May 1952, Bob entered the Royal Naval Scientific Service, a forerunner of GCHQ in which he stayed for 11 years working in London, Cheltenham and even the UK’s embassy in Washington, USA. It was here that he first came across the Enigma machine, one of the many state secrets of his time at GCHQ about which he would keep silent.

His interest in academic matters led to his appointment as head of programming at the Atlas Laboratory in Harwell (which was a centrally funded institution designed to assist in the scientific computations needed by the UK universities), which led to Bob serving on many government bodies that were responsible for the provision of computing to universities. This cumulated with his membership and later chairmanship of the Computer Board for which he was awarded a CBE.

In 1970 Bob was invited by the then Principal of University College Cardiff to set up a new Department of Computing Mathematics at Cardiff. This he did as the Inaugural Professor and departmental head. In addition to this, and for a short period, he was also Director of the Cardiff University Computer Centre.

Bob’s academic work was mainly motivated by his interest in number theory. His approach, at this point of his career, was to use the power of computers to make conjectures in number theory and also to use some of the hints he perceived from the computation to devise rigours mathematical proofs. From his early days at Cardiff, Bob recognised that computers would penetrate every field and in the 1970s he was active in inviting visitors to Cardiff who had begun to use computers in new areas outside the physical sciences such as law, linguistics, history, and the visual arts.

In addition to his University and Government work at Cardiff, being a life-long Roman Catholic, he helped to reorganise the Church’s provision for high school education in Cardiff as well as serving as governor of the St David’s Sixth Form College. This work was recognised by the award of a Papal Knighthood.

Towards the latter part of his time at Cardiff, Bob was a member of the University Senate, and Deputy Principal at the time of merger with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST). His last academic projects were a book, Codes and Ciphers: Julius Caesar, the Enigma, and the Internet, together with many lectures, both popular and scientific, which focused on the now declassified Enigma machine, and the problems involved in deciphering its messages at Bletchley Park during World War II.

In 1954 Bob married Julie McCarthey who, together with their three sons Gerald, Robert and John, survive him. He died of heart failure on August 27, 2018, aged 90.

-Written by Michael Atkinson, Malcolm Brown, Fred Lunnon and Nelson Stephens