Willem van der Poel

Pioneer, programmer and problem solver

In 1950, Willem van der Poel graduated in Applied Physics with a computer design as his graduation project. Because he did not enjoy performing calculations by heart, he looked
for ways to get computers to do the job. He was hired by the Neherlaboratorium, where he specialised in designing and building the first Dutch computers and programming languages.

Van der Poel obtained his doctorate in 1956 from the Municipal University of Amsterdam with the design of the ZEBRA, a Dutch acronym for very simple binary arithmetic automat. In 1958, the ZEBRA was produced by the Neherlaboratorium: more than fifty examples were put into use internationally. In Delft, Utrecht and Groningen, the ZEBRA was the only university computer at the time.

Inspired by mathematician and programmer Gerrit van der Mey, his deaf-blind colleague, Van der Poel and his team developed a mechanical braille writing machine. It was a keyboard with Braille dots as output, made to communicate with Van der Mey. The colleagues were allowed to demonstrate the device in 1957 at a world congress on communication with deaf-blind people and were even welcomed at the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

From 1962, in addition to his work for the Neherlaboratorium, Van der Poel was a professor at Delft University of Technology. His multifaceted achievements also ensured that he was welcomed as a member of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences. Even at an advanced age he still regularly visits the basement of Delft University. There you will find the Study Collection, an extensive historical collection of electrotechnical machines and devices, including several computers by Van der Poel.

Dr. Willem van der Poel is receiving this award for his pioneering work in the field of computers and his tireless inventiveness.