Allan Bromley (historian) - Biography

Biography

Allan George Bromley was born 1 Feb 1947 and named after his uncle Allan killed in New Guinea during WW2, and his father George, who died 8 Aug 1962. He grew up on a 30 acre property at Freeman’s Reach, on the Hawkesbury River, in an historic home “Sunny Corner”. He completed his schooling at Richmond High School and at 17 his academic ability earned him a scholarship and a place to study science at the University of Sydney in 1964. He was awarded the Nuclear Research Foundation Medal, University of Sydney. Summer Science School, 1963.

Allan graduated with first class honours in physics in 1967, stayed on for a research degree in astrophysics, and was awarded his PhD in 1971. His doctoral work on maser emission from interstellar gas clouds required extensive computation with high-order polynomials, and awakened his interest in computing.

He was an inspired teacher. His philosophy was in many ways more suited to the contemplative style of the Oxbridge tradition, clearly at odds with the market-driven ethos of his day and today.

Bromley had an amateur interest in the history of mechanical inventions, and was aware of the ancestral figure of Charles Babbage. No one had ever made a very detailed study of Babbage's papers and, in a surprising career move, Bromley decided to turn historian and took a year's sabbatical leave in 1979 to work on the Babbage Papers at the Science Museum in London. What he found was overwhelming - notebooks containing over 6,000 pages of Babbage's impenetrable scribblings, 300 machine drawings, and several hundred notations. These were to occupy Bromley for the next several years. His first marriage, to Jann Makepeace, was during this time. Bromley worked with and convinced the Science Museum in London that Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 designed between 1847 and 1849 could be built and subsequently it was in 1985.

After Babbage's engines, Bromley moved on to other historical computing artefacts. He made a path-breaking study of the Antikythera Mechanism, originally made famous by the Yale historian Derek de Solla Price in the late 1950s. Price had speculated that the mechanism, dating from 50 BC, was an astronomical calculating device. Bromley's background in astrophysics paid dividends, and after several trips to Athens where he obtained radiographs of the inner mechanisms, and with the help of a clockmaker Frank Percival, back in Sydney, they produced a working reconstruction. In November 2000 Bromley was given a Distinguished Service Award and made an Honorary Associate of the Powerhouse Museum Sydney. In 1998 after a long spell of illness he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He met Anne Mitchell at this time and on 15th April 2000 they married under the Jacaranda Tree in the Main Quadrangle at the University of Sydney.

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