John Wexler (ColA 1954-1962)
Submitted by Paul Wade
“The Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS) was a mainframe computer operating system developed at the University of Edinburgh. This is often considered to be a precursor of cloud computing.” Sometimes, it is only when old friends pass on that you appreciate the important work they did at “the office”. For most of us, John Wexler was witty, hospitable, passionate about music, photography, cooking, sailing, cats, his Welsh heritage, his adopted Scotland…and, of course, his family. Oh, I almost forgot: whisky. But he was also a computer pioneer.
At CH, John was a typical boffin, complete with horn-rimmed glasses. He excelled at mathematics but was also a star on stage. More than 60 years on, Old Blues of his era still remember his performance in a joint Col A/Col B production of The Pirates of Penzance (see photo below). John really was the Very Model of a Modern Major-General. “The best I have ever seen, heard … or had the privilege of acting with,” according to one contemporary.
He was proud that he had shot at Bisley, but would have a go, even at things in which he did NOT excel. For example, he turned out for the house cricket team – despite being hopeless with bat and ball. And helped Col A reach an unlikely final. Participation and determination, along with humour and a love of music, were there in his years at CH.
He won an Exhibition to read maths at Jesus College, Oxford and in 1966, went on to work at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington. That was in the early days of computers, when a single computer filled an entire room. More importantly, he met Susan, his wife to be. When she won a place at Edinburgh University, he followed her and spent the rest of his life in Scotland.
Working with computers (as did Susan), he helped develop what were described as “the digital underpinnings of our modern lives.” He was deeply involved in the programming of mini-computers, a steppingstone on the path that led to the micro-computers we take for granted today. And his all-round natural talent for communication made him the ideal person to bridge the gap between academia and the outside world.
The list of his achievements is astonishing. He took up sailing and went on a couple of expeditions with the Old Blues Sailing Club. One passion both he and Susan shared was choral singing, especially with Rudsambee, a 20-strong choir that sings unaccompanied. Their repertoire ranges from Renaissance and world music to modern works and anything fun. And it is very social. John and Susan were involved for almost 30 years, regularly hosting rehearsals at their home in Morningside.
At CH, John’s dry wit was Pythonesque and his repartee entertained family and friends throughout his life. Suffering in later years from a nasty disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (a progressive and incurable condition of the lungs), he shrugged it off by quipping: “It’s basically Farmer’s Lung, without the trouble of having to run a farm.”
In 2021, John volunteered to participate in the trial of an experimental treatment. He battled on this year, still singing in concerts and even at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer. Sadly, John died in Edinburgh in early September, aged 79. His wife Susan, and sons Daniel and Tom, were at his bedside at the Western General Hospital. As his son reflected at the funeral, “He led a busy life, well-lived.” Others remembered his “honesty, openness and good humour.”
For tributes to John, the family’s chosen charity is Asthma + Lung UK (formerly British Lung Foundation). Just go to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/john-wexler-blf