In his early career Fairclough designed memory modules for Pegasus, Ferranti's first commercial computer, which was widely used in education.
He went on to make his mark at IBM, where he was a pioneer in developing distributed computing. His success led IBM to make him managing director of the UK Hursley Laboratory.
Fairclough became chief scientific adviser to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1986, and he was knighted in 1990.
He served as BCS president between 1986 and 1987, chairing work which led to the society becoming a full member of the Engineering Council.
In 1990 he became chairman of the Engineering Council, where he headed the team whose work culminated in a major realignment of the organisation.