13 April 2021

A man ahead of his time who made important contributions to computer science and who was ever willing to share his knowledge. The description is that of Harold “Bud” Lawson, founder of a scholarship at Linköping University.

“He made contact with folk easily. It made you happy just to talk to him. And he was creative and full of new ideas, ideas that he subsequently worked to bring to reality”, says Professor Emeritus Erik Sandewall, who first met Bud Lawson in the 1970s.

Early in 2019, Bud Lawson founded the “Lawson Scholarship” under the Linköping University Jubilee Foundation, to encourage doctoral students in the Department of Computer and Information Science to take international exchange visits and increase international contacts at the department. The scholarship will be awarded to doctoral students whose work in computer and information science or in electrical engineering has contributed at an international level. The intention is to spotlight excellent performance, and make extended international exchange possible early in the career of a researcher.

“International contacts and networks are extremely important for researchers. This is something that Bud Lawson believed in and lived by“, says Henrik Eriksson, head of department in the Department of Computer and Information Science.

A passion for computer science

Harold “Bud” Lawson was born in 1937 in Philadelphia in the US, and developed a lifelong passion for computer science, a field in which he made several major contributions. He was also very interested in internationalisation of both research and the university. He came to Linköping in 1971.

Initially, he worked at Datasaab, and was subsequently appointed professor in telecommunication and computer systems at the Institute of Technology at Linköping University. In 1983, he and Erik Sandewall founded the Department of Computer and Information Science, or IDA. With inspiration from American universities such as Stanford, they created a type of organisation that had not previously been seen in Sweden.

“Bud’s background was in the US, and I had also been there quite a bit. We wanted the organisation at IDA to be flexible. Anyone who was ambitious enough could lead a research group. You didn’t have to be a professor, which was otherwise customary at the time”, says Erik Sandewall.
Bud Lawson, far right, in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the middle of the 1980s.Bud Lawson, far right, in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the middle of the 1980s.

A prize for pointer variables

One of Bud Lawson’s contributions to programming is what is known as a “pointer variable”. Originally, a record in a program could process only letters, numbers and text strings. It became clear that it was necessary to allow a record to contain a reference to another record.

“You can visualise this as a record being a rectangle with some boxes, where one of the boxes contains, not a number, but an arrow – a pointer – that the computer can follow to arrive at another record”, says Erik Sandewall.

In the 1960s, Bud Lawson proposed how pointer variables could be realised in IBM’s new programming language, PL/I. His suggestion was welcomed and implemented. This advance was recognised by the award to Bud in 2000 of the “Computer Pioneer Award” from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an international organisation in the engineering industry.

“He was truly proud of developing the pointer technique. I think you could probably say that he saw it as one of his most important contributions”, says Erik Sandewall.

Flexible architecture

Another advance pioneered by Bud Lawson concerns FCPU architecture.

“At Datasaab, he developed what is known as a flexible computer processing unit. Instead of doing everything in hardware, which was normal at the time, Bud wanted to have something that could be programmed to become a computer. This is what it was that was flexible”, says Erik Sandewall.

Zebo Peng is professor at Linköping University. He came to LiU in 1983, and Bud Lawson became his supervisor. He remembers that Bud Lawson played tennis and basketball, in addition to his passion for computer science.

“Bud speculated that it should be possible to use software systems to help basketball players. I looked into the idea, but the computer systems at the time were too slow. He was before his time – this is exactly what researchers in sport analytics are doing today.”

Bud Lawson and computer pioneer Grace Hopper in Linköping.Bud Lawson and computer pioneer Grace Hopper in Linköping.

Internationalisation brings new ideas

Bud Lawson was also interested in the internationalisation of computer science and the university world in general. Zebo Peng remembers how Lawson always encouraged doctoral students to visit universities abroad and collaborate with researchers from other countries. This was not only to make new contacts, but also to gain new ideas.

Bud Lawson also took the initiative to the Swedish International University.

“He had a vision of a university that conducted teaching in several places: Linköping, Stockholm, etcetera. It would give courses in English, charge fees, and compete on the international market. In other words, offer doctoral education in Sweden for fee-paying students from China, the US, and other countries”, says Erik Sandewall.

He says that Bud Lawson was able to interest several Swedish universities, but the central authorities in Sweden didn’t understand what he was trying to create, and the suggestion fell of deaf ears.

“Today, this system is taken for granted, but Bud’s proposal was before its time. If it had been taken up, Swedish universities would have been in a different position when internationalisation subsequently came to be extensively used”, says Erik Sandewall.

Sharing knowledge

Bud Lawson left his professorship at Linköping University in 1986 and started to work as a consultant in the business world, among other things. He returned to the university to teach throughout his life. Bud Lawson’s son Adrian sees this as a characteristic of his father. If he had wanted, Bud Lawson could have had a career exclusively in the business world, but instead spent a lot of his time in academia.

“I’m sure that he wanted, quite simply, to share his knowledge and experience with the younger generation, hoping to make the world a better place. When I received a prestigious award from the IEEE in San Diego on behalf of my father, it occurred to me that he, just as many of the other prize-winners, was not driven by financial success, but by a genuine interest in the field and a desire to help it advance in the best possible way”, says Adrian Lawson.

Bud Lawson died in 2019 after a short illness.

Lawson Scholarship now receiving donations

Several commemorative gifts from relatives and friends have provided a significant increase in capital since the scholarship fund was opened in 2019. It remains open for donations, and welcomes gifts of any size. It is also possible to commemorate a birthday with a donation, or honour the memory of a person in association with a funeral. Donations to the Lawson Scholarship Fund, or any other area that is felt to be important at LiU, can also be made in a will.
For more information about various ways to support LiU please contact Kristina Lyngenberg at the International Affairs and Collaborations Division. For more information about Bud Lawson please visit this page.

Translated by George Farrants


Latest news from LiU

Sheet of glass with droplet.

Next-generation sustainable electronics are doped with air

Researchers at LiU have developed a new method where organic semiconductors can become more conductive with the help of air as a dopant. The study is a significant step towards future sustainable organic semiconductors.

physicians in a clinica setting.

Healthcare interpreters important for heart attack aftercare

After a heart attack, foreign-born people are less likely to attend a relapse-preventing Heart School than native-born patients. But with access to a professional interpreter, participation increases, according to a new study.

Battery om fingertip.

Eco-friendly and affordable battery for low-income countries

A battery made from zinc and lignin that can be used over 8000 times. This has been developed by researchers at LiU with a vision to provide a cheap and sustainable battery solution for countries where access to electricity is limited.