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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Science > Science features > Play with Baby

Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams

Tom Kilburn and Sir Freddie Williams

Play with Baby

Nowadays, computers are everywhere, but as we all know, it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, back in 1948, there was really only one in the world worth talking about – Manchester’s very own ‘Baby’, a machine capable of just the simplest of tasks.

The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine

- The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine or Baby was the world's first stored-program electronic digital computer
- It was designed and built by Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams
- Baby successfully executed its first program in Manchester on 21 June 1948
- It could only store a total of 32 numbers and instructions

Sixty years on and the descendants of Baby – or the Small-Scale Experimental Machine to give it its full title – run everything from mobile phones to satellites, but they simply wouldn’t exist without the pioneering work that went into that original machine.

So to celebrate Baby's 60th birthday, the University of Manchester are asking people to step back in time and have a go at programming the machine via a specially designed Internet simulation, with prizes being awarded to those who come up with the best and most interesting new programs.

And while it might need a bit of experience in computer programming to be a winner, thankfully you don’t have to be a computer whizzkid to simply try it out, as it comes with a full set of instructions - and it’s worth giving it a whirl, if only to see just how basic the beginnings of the computer age were.

The virtual 'Baby'

The virtual 'Baby'

While modern computers can offer the chance to watch live TV, collate vast amounts of data or simply have a go at being a virtual wizard, Baby could only run one of six programs – simple tests of prime numbers – all of which had to be put in manually.

Of course, that’s because the 'Small Scale' in Baby’s proper name refers to the number of bits the machine had – a mere 1024, compared to the 1600 billion bits available to the average home computer now - rather than the machine itself, which actually filled a room and weighed a tonne.

And if you don’t believe that computers were ever that size, you can see a working replica of the Baby at the Museum of Science and Industry, which was built a decade ago to celebrate the original machine’s 50th birthday.

last updated: 26/03/2008 at 13:52
created: 29/02/2008

You are in: Manchester > Science > Science features > Play with Baby

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