Buxton, John Noel (19332009), computer scientist, was born on 25 December 1933 in Shipley Hospital, 90 Kirkgate, Shipley, Yorkshire, the eldest child of John William Buxton, journalist, and his wife, Laura Frances, née Whitehead. At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 5 Lucy Hall Drive, Baildon, near Shipley. His father worked for the Yorkshire Post, later becoming its London editor. Buxton attended Bradford grammar school and read mathematics with physics at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1955. He then worked as a flight trials engineer in the De Havilland aircraft company. On 8 February 1958, at Esholt parish church, he married Moira Jean O'Brien (b. 1935), a fellow undergraduate at Cambridge, who was then a programmer with IBM. She was the daughter of William Edward Cuningham O'Brien, local government officer. They had two daughters, Jocelyn and Delia, and two sons, Nigel and Patrick.
Uncertain over his career, Buxton was given the best advice I have ever had by his wife, Moira, to try computers (unpublished memoir). In 1959 he joined the British Iron and Steel Research Association, where he built a simulation program for industrial processes. Then in 1960 he moved to IBM, first working in the City, but then co-developing the control and simulation language, CSL. Widely used for over twenty years in the industry, this cemented his reputation. In 1962 he was invited to join a group designing the combined programming language (CPL) for Atlas Computers at London and Cambridge universities. He left IBM and took a lectureship at the short-lived, but notable, London University Institute of Computer Science. The team leader was Christopher Strachey in Cambridge, who after four years moved to a chair at Oxford. Strachey was reluctant to publish unfinished work but Buxton, recognizing the importance of this research, negotiated the production of the widely circulated CPL Reference Manual. This was very influential and many programming languages owed a considerable debt to CPL; indeed, at the time of his death (almost fifty years later) it was observed that few modern programming languages do not have a strand of CPL in their DNA (The Guardian, 13 Nov 2009).
In 1966 Buxton became chief software consultant at CEIR Ltd. In 1967 British Petroleum acquired the company and the management team left to set up parts of the UK software industry including the companies Logica and Leasco, for whom Buxton acted as a consultant. He decided to return to academia in 1967 when he was asked to apply for a newly established chair at Warwick University. He became, at thirty-four, the youngest professor of computer science in the country. At Warwick he founded the department from scratch, designing degree courses and planning research. He wanted a well-balanced department with theoretical computer science well represented as a counterbalance to his own interests in languages and software engineering. The department became one of the best in the country. He was also much involved in the governance of the developing university under its first vice-chancellor, Jack Butterworth. By 1969 student riots in Paris had spread to Warwick, making headlines in the national press. Student occupation disrupted the university for months. E. P. Thompson's book Warwick University Ltd claimed that the university was in the grip of big business and that Butterworth had sold out to them. Buxton took a neutral position and was cheered by picketing students as he drove up in his vintage Rolls-Royce to attend the university council in the Bishop's Palace, Coventry. The protests ended with the academic year. Buxton was appointed to a committee developing consequential changes to university statutes, including the idea of electing heads of departments, which later affected Buxton himself.
Buxton was on the organizing committee and edited proceedings for the NATO Software Engineering Conferences of 1968 and 1969, which helped to establish the field. He also began expert work for the UN, spending time, for example, in Bratislava to advise the Czechs. This continued with visits to Hungary, often accompanied by the family, and led to an invitation in 1975 to head a UN Development Program project at the International Computing Educational Centre in Budapest. This project, from 1972 to 1977, provided educational support for developing countries. After returning to Warwick he took another leave of absence to work for the Pentagon in Washington and concurrently to hold a chair at Harvard, in 197980. There he led the Stoneman project, a precursor to the Ada programming language, intended to be the standard for military systems for the Department of Defense. The project generated worldwide interest and Buxton's report, published by the Pentagon, was widely circulated. Aside from hard work, this was an enjoyable year. Buxton rented a house in Alexandria, south of Washington, and Moira spent time in the rare books room of the Library of Congress writing a draft of her book on medieval cookery (Medieval Cooking Today, published in 1983). All this globetrotting cost Buxton, through the election process he had introduced, his chairmanship of the department at Warwick.
In 1984 Buxton moved to King's College, London, to establish its computer science department. Concurrently he became involved with, finally chairing, the Science and Engineering Research Council's committee awarding grants in his research area. From 1989 to 1991 this led to his secondment from King's College to take up the directorship of systems engineering in the Department of Trade and Industry. He took retirement from King's in 1994.
Over the years Buxton had undertaken work as an expert witness in information technology cases in the high courts. In retirement this led indirectly to his acting as chairman, from 1993 to 1997, of the start-up company Room Underwriting Systems, building software for the Lloyds insurance market. At sale the company had 100 employees. From 1997 to 2000, as technical vice-president of the British Computer Society (of which he had been made a fellow in 1968), he was frequently called on as an expert witness in software disputes.
John and Moira Buxton enjoyed renovating Tudor buildings. While he was at Warwick University, they lived in Hanwell Castle, Oxfordshire, and in retirement in the Guildhall at Eye, Suffolk. In private life Buxton enjoyed music, his piano, photography, genealogy, and researching local history. When younger he was a mountaineer. Charismatic and charming, he was cherished by family, colleagues, and very many acquaintances at home and abroad. In his latter years he took great delight in the company of his five grandchildren. He died of prostate cancer on 3 November 2009 in the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Colney, Norwich. After a funeral service in the packed ancient church of All Saints', Tibenham, Norfolk, on 14 November 2009, he was interred in the churchyard alongside his Norfolk ancestors. He was survived by his wife, Moira, and their four children.
J. Buxton, unpublished memoir, priv. coll. · The Guardian (13 Nov 2009) · Old Bradfordian (summer 2010), 11 · Climbers' Club Journal, 123 (2010), 1467 · East Anglian Times (12 Nov 2010) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.