The Manchester team working on 'Baby'
Race for the prize
Academics and computer enthusiasts may argue about the details, but to all intents, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or 'Baby' was the world’s first computer – but how did Manchester end up being the birthplace of the computer?
The story of computers begins a long time before the birth of 'Baby' in 1948. Rudimentary devices had actually been used for several centuries – it could even be argued that the Ancient World’s abacus was the first computer – but the story truly begins with the work of Charles Babbage in the 19th century.
Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a mechanical general-purpose computer which he first proposed in 1837, though he was still trying to complete the design at the time of his death in 1871.
The Analytical Engine was never actually built, but its design is an important step as it was designed to be programmed (with punch cards) just like a computer and it was the first device to later be credited as being ‘Turing complete’ – meaning it conformed to Alan Turing’s 1936 proposed ‘universal computing machine’, which could run any arbitrary sequence of instructions (every computing device so far invented fits this model).
The science of war
The evolution of computers after Babbage faltered for a while, as conflict overtook the world, though it was war that pushed the computer back on track, as the arms race of WWII brought computer science to the fore.
The first breakthrough came in Germany with the production of the Zuse Z3 in 1941. Using a simple binary system, the Z3 was capable of running programs, though it could not store any information.
Colossus at Bletchley Park
Similarly, America’s Atanasoff–Berry Computer was undoubtedly useful, but designed for one purpose only, that of solving simultaneous linear equations, it was more of a calculating machine than a computer.
That description is crucial in the race to produce the first 'real' computer. Simply put, scientists were trying to succeed in two aims: to have a machine that was totally powered electronically and to have the ability to store programming within it (stored programming effectively allows the computer to program itself and work like a modern computer).
The next two major machines, the UK's 'Colossus' (based at the top secret military base at Bletchley Park) and the USA's 'Harvard Mark I', both came close to snatching the title from 'Baby', but both fell short – brilliant as the machines were, they failed to fill one or the other of the requirements for power and storage.
The race moves north
The end of the war brought no respite for those involved with the burgeoning science of computers. In the UK and the US, the race was hotting up.
On 19 February 1946, Alan Turing (who had worked with the Colossus machine and was by then at Teddington’s National Physical Laboratory) presented a paper which included a complete design for a stored-program computer, the Pilot ACE, which his team were about to start building – but there were delays, allowing the team at the University of Manchester to make their bid to win the race.
Manchester had become part of the computer race as a result of Max Newman joining the University as a Professor of Mathematics. Newman had directed the Colossus operation during the war and wanted to continue working with computers in peacetime. The University had already been experimenting with designing computers, but the arrival of Newman, followed by that of Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams, put Manchester into the spotlight, thanks to some radical ideas about data storage.
The big leap forward
At the time, everyone involved in computer science thought the best method of storage was the Mercury Acoustic Delay Line, but that device wasn't truly random-access, an essential value for computer memory.
Freddie Williams (while working for Malvern's Telecommunications Research Establishment) had the idea that cathode ray tubes would work better, an idea which proved to be successful when he tried it in November 1946.
So when Williams moved to Manchester in January 1947 to take up a chair in Electro-Technics in the Department of Engineering, bringing Tom Kilburn with him, it was this system they brought with them.
By December, Williams had progressed his idea to such a point that he wanted a computer to test it on. Work on building the 'Baby' began almost straight away and continued into the first half of 1948, with Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill taking charge of the majority of it.
Around the same time, at Cambridge University, a team began the construction of their own stored-program computing machine, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator and over in America, the Harvard team were refining their designs. It was now a race against time to see who would succeed first.
The computer age dawns
By June, the finished machine had filled a 20 foot square room in a Manchester side street across from the University and the trials began. In numerous tests, all the work of programming the computer produced no conclusive results and the team had to keep returning to the start to rethink their processes.
On Monday 21 June, the team started another week of trials, laboriously inputting the data for the computer to work on and setting it going. Immediately, they noticed a difference.
As Williams later described it, "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. It was a moment to remember… nothing was ever the same again."
It was the result of a program to determine the highest factor of a number and it proved that the world's first stored-program Computer had indeed been invented – ‘Baby’ had become the first fully electronic computer to run a stored program and thus become the first 'real' computer.
The legacy of 'Baby'
The success brought Alan Turing to Manchester. Despondent at the Teddington team’s lack of progress, he had returned to Cambridge University in 1947, but when he heard from Max Newman, his former boss at Bletchley Park, of the success of 'Baby', he decided the city was for him.
'Baby' in December 1948
In late 1948, he was appointed Reader in the Mathematics Department at Manchester and in 1949 became deputy director of the computing laboratory, working on the software for the SSEM’s next step — the Manchester Mark I.
Manchester had become the centre of the computing world. By the mid-50s, Tom Kilburn’s team had started work on what, in 1962, would become the world’s fastest computer, Atlas. Three years later, seeing the potential explosion in interest in computers, the University became the first to offer an undergraduate degree in Computer Science.
By the mid-70s, that place at the front had shifted away from Manchester and to America, but the legacies of Kilburn, Williams, Newman, Turing and, of course, 'Baby' still exist in Manchester. From the plans to give the city complete wireless broadband internet coverage to the founding of the digital arts and music festival Futuresonic, Manchester is, now more than ever, a computer city.
last updated: 18/06/2008 at 14:47