Ross, Hugh McGregor 1917 - 2014

(b 1917), computer engineer and historian

Hugh McGregor Ross, born on the 31st August 1917, was an early pioneer in the history of British computing. He studied engineering at Cambridge University.

Hugh joined the Borehamwood Research Laboratories of Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd. in 1950, where he became involved with electronic magnetometers and analogue instrumentation. The Director of Elliott’s Computing Division, W S (Bill) Elliott, left Borehamwood in 1953 and Hugh followed him to Ferranti as a Sales and Applications Manager, working under Bernard Swann. In 1956, the Ferranti Pegasus computer came onto the market and Hugh acquired a particular interest in this machine.

By 1960, through his dealings with end-users, Hugh had become involved with character codes and data transmission. One particular development stimulated Hugh’s interest: the advent of Flexowriters with 7- and 8-track paper tape as replacements for 5-track teleprinters. At Ferranti, Hugh was a key contributor to the definition of 6-bit character codes for Orion and Atlas.

It became clear that standardisation of character codes between computer manufacturers was highly desirable. Hugh took a leading role in various committees of the Electronic Engineering Association, the British Standards Institution and the European Computer Manufacturers Association. He became the UK delegate to the International Standards Organisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission. In about 1965 he promoted the character code ECMA-6 Ed.1 (later to become ISO 646) and he subsequently worked with Bob Bemer to achieve the transformation of ISO 646 by CCITT as International Alphabet No. 5, eventually known as ASCII. Hugh’s involvement in the development of coding standards continued for many years, progressing from 8-bit to 16-bit codes and embracing alphabetic and ideographic scripts for all languages of the world in regular use today, including some little-known minority alphabets in which Hugh became an authority. From 1984 Hugh was deeply involved in the development of ISO 10646 and, in 1993, became the first editor of the ISO 10646 Report. This, in due course, contributed to Unicode.

In parallel with all of Hugh’s international activities, in 1964 Hugh joined STC as General Manager of the Data Systems Division. In 1968 he became an independent consultant, specialising in telecommunication-oriented computer systems, interactive computing and the representation of data. He retained these interests well into retirement, latterly combining them with computer history and writing books on Quaker topics. Hugh participated in the activities of CCS being a frequent contributor to Resurrection. His somewhat idiosyncratic views of computer history led, in 2012, to a book on Pegasus.

Hugh died in Painswick, Gloucestershire, on the 1st September 2014 at the age of 97.