Linda Brackenbury with Baby at MOSI
'Baby' grows up
Ever since 'Baby', the world's first computer was born in 1948, Manchester has led the world in computer science. Celebrating 60 years of the modern computer, Linda Brackenbury of the University of Manchester looks at how far we've come:
- 'Baby' was built using technology developed for World War II communications equipment
In 1965, The University of Manchester was the first in the country to open a Computer Science degree course and Linda Brackenbury was one of the first 28 students to enrol.
Linda - now a Senior Lecturer in the department - was taught by Tom Kilburn, the man who along with Sir Freddie Williams invented the world's first computer, 'Baby,' in Manchester in 1948.
'Baby' - or The Small Scale Experimental Machine - had the equivalent processing power of a mobile phone but filled an entire room with technical apparatus and cables. A replica is based within Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.
This single machine was the ancestor of all today's PCs, laptops, computer games and the world wide web.
The 60th anniversary of the modern computer is being marked by the University of Manchester with a series of events called 'Digital 60.'
Interview: Linda Brackenbury
Tom Kilburn and Sir Freddie Williams
What do you remember about your days as a student in Manchester?
"It was an extremely exciting time to be an undergraduate in Computer Science (CS). It was really the first course in the country and we were the first lot to be admitted to that course. There were only 28 of us in the first year – and just four girls - and we had a very close relationship with the staff because we were pioneering our way through this course and there was this buzz and excitement about what we were doing."
What inspired you to go on the course?
"Nobody had a crystal ball as to where it was actually going to go but to me it looked very interesting because I had studied Maths and Physics at advanced level and I wanted something that was going to continue both streams of knowledge. And CS where we were going to learn something about the hardware and use our maths to do the programming seemed to be the ideal combination."
How aware were you of being at the forefront of computer science?
"I think that it gradually dawned on us about how historic the pioneers were that were there. We had lectures from Tom Kilburn – he of course with Freddie Williams was involved with the design of the Baby machine and in our first year he came along and told us exactly how they put the Baby machine together. And at the time of our third year, they were busy designing the fifth machine for Manchester which was called MU5. And that was exciting because he would come into his lectures and tell us exactly what they were thinking of doing on the machine."
How important was the role that Alan Turing played in developing this field?
"Turing is considered by most people to be one of the original thinkers of [the last] century and I think he’s had an tremendous impact. You can’t pick up any text book which refers to early computing without the name of Turing being mentioned and he really was a one-off sort of guy. We’re very proud and that’s why we’re hoping to celebrate in great style [on the 40th anniversary]."
What were lectures like in those days?
"I can remember my time very well because there was a sense that we were being taught by experts in the field. These were the people who had grafted through doing the programming the hard way – they’d got a lot of practical experience. The thing was that weren’t a lot of text books around at the time so there was a great emphasis on not just telling you the theory but also telling you the potholes that they’d fallen down so you too could avoid them."
How much had things progressed in 1965 since the invention of Baby?
"Well, the first technology of 1948 was valves. And it was steadily moving into the transistor era and the first integrated circuits were just coming out around then. It was a time of real technological change going from valves into much smaller units and circuits so that machines could be built in a much smaller space."
A very big 'Baby' fills the room
What was the computer that you studied on like?
"That was the Atlas machine and again that was a transistor machine which was fairly advanced at the time and it had a lot of very sophisticated facilities compared with the 1948 machine which was really only the power of your average small hand held computer."
How big was Baby?
"If you imagine a very large lounge-cum-dining room and you imagine that were down both sides of the walls down the long sides of the walls. And looms of cables strung across the two cabinets down the sides between them, you’ll get the sort of feeling of how big the whole thing was."
Tell us about the new 'Baby'..
"It’s a replica of the world’s first computer – it’s a rebuild – a very good rebuild and the person who’s done the rebuilding, Chris Burton, has had to go right round the country to find all the bits and pieces."
Can today's students still learn from those early days of computer science?
"The fundamental principles of going to execute instructions one after another until you come to something where you want to jump is still very much the same. So, although the technology has changed a great deal, the underlying principles are very much as they always were. Of course, things are lot more sophisticated now and we’re able to do more things but when you look at it.. it all stems from the 1948 machine.
I hope that the message that they take away is that we’ve come a long away and there’s still a long way to go. And that it’s an exciting topic to be in."
last updated: 13/06/2008 at 18:14