Chapter 4: When Britain ruled the Computing World

"When first built, a program was laboriously inserted and the start switch pressed. Immediately the spots on the display tube entered a mad dance. In early trials it was a dance of death leading to no useful result, and what was even worse, without yielding any clue as to what was wrong. But one day it stopped and there, shining brightly in the expected place, was the expected answer.” Tom Kilburn's recollection of one of the most famous moments in computing history.
picture of the Manchester Baby screen display
all photos: copyright Mike Hally 2004
Living near Manchester and spending a lot of time in that great city (and I’m not normally a fan of cities) I am naturally biased in favour of the Manchester Baby but to call it the first modern computer is a fine example of the importance of definition. Yes it was an electronic, digital binary computer with the world’s first practical working stored-program memory. But it was primarily a scale model to prove the idea, rather than a full working computer. Maurice Wilkes’ EDSAC took another year to run its first successful program but he was building a complete working machine that went straight into service and provide computing resources for Cambridge University over many years. And neither team was building an all-purpose machine intended for mass production and business use, as Eckert and Mauchly were with the UNIVAC.
general view of the restored "Baby"
General view of the "Baby"
But I’m very fond of Manchester’s Baby, not least because an extraordinary bunch of enthusiasts built a faithful working replica, largely from contemporary components and it works and they demonstrate it every week in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. They do that every Tuesday – anyone who’s enjoyed “Electronic Brains” should go and see the Baby in operation and chat to the enthusiasts who keep it going.
A Computer Conservation Society volunteer demonstrating the "Baby" to a visitor
Better still, join the Computer Conservation Society, wherever you are in the country, and help restore other early British computers and preserve them for posterity.
And while you're at the Museum of Science and Industry, search out the Differential Analyser, designed by Douglas Hartree in the 30s and one of the foundations of mechanical computing on which the computing age was built.
Sir Maurice Wilkes      
The more I researched this chapter, the more I came to admire Maurice Wilkes, and to wonder why he has so little popular recognition. Hugely admired in the computing world, around the globe, yet almost unknown outside it. I don't want to disparage the remarkable Alan Turing in any way, it is just curious to note that he has entered popular consciousness in a way that Wilkes hasn't. Whatever the reason for this disparity in recognition, it was an honour and a thrill to be granted an interview with Sir Maurice in the office he still uses regularly in the Computing Laboratory at Cambridge University -- at the age of 91.
last update 18/3/05