by Matthew Cobb
The machine you are reading this post on can trace its conceptual ancestry back to the city where I live and work – Manchester. 65 years ago, on 21 June 1948, the world’s first computer that could store a programme in its electronic memory – Random Access Memory or RAM – was turned on in a red brick building. Developed by ‘Freddie’ Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the machine was able to store 2048 digits on a cathode ray tube. This development marked the beginning of programming.
The machine’s official name was ‘the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine’; its nickname was ‘The Baby’. Despite its name, it filled a room:
To commemorate this 65th anniversary, Google has produced this brief video explaining what was involved and why it was such a great leap forward in the history of computing. It includes archive footage and interviews with many of the men who were involved.
Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), this 1961 US Army phylogenetic tree of computers, completely ignores The Baby. This (very large) 1975 poster of the history of computers has a broader view, and covers all the different sources and routes to the development of the modern computer, including The Baby.
At the time, people were well aware of the significance of what was going on in Manchester. In 1946, Norbert Wiener, the mercurial genius who was in the process of developing the concepts of cybernetics, visited the UK. After chatting to the geneticist J B S Haldane in London, Wiener made the smoky journey up to Manchester. ‘I found that Manchester was well at the front of the new technique of high-speed automatic computing machines’ he wrote in his autobiography.
On that visit to England, Wiener also met Alan Turing, who had already theorised the idea of a programmable computer as the ‘universal machine’. At the beginning of 1948, Turing joined the University of Manchester and began to use The Baby and its successors, ultimately using the machines to try and understand patterns of organismal development, through what he termed ‘morphogens’. Some of Turing’s programmes are still intact and were displayed in a recent Turing centenary exhibition about his work on morphogens, at the Manchester Museum.
In an intriguing ‘what if’, the pioneer of virus genetics, Max Delbrück, came within a gnat’s whisker of joining the University of Manchester at the same time. However, after accepting the offer, he changed his mind and went to Caltech instead. In a parallel universe, the histories of molecular genetics, developmental biology and computing all took a very different turn as Turing and Delbrück interacted in unimaginable ways.
The Baby was soon cannibalised and within 18 months was out of date; nothing remains of the original machine. But to mark the 50th anniversary, a working replica was built, which can be seen at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, which is housed in the world’s first passenger railway station.