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United Kingdom Hardware

65 Years Ago, Manchester's 'Baby' Ran Electronically Stored Program 103

Posted by timothy
from the blue-sapphire-anniversary-if-you're-wondering dept.
hypnosec writes that the first ever practical implementation of the stored program concept took place 65 years ago, "as the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine aka 'Baby' became the world's first computer to run an electronically stored program on June 21, 1948. The 'Baby' was developed by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill at the University of Manchester. 'Baby' served as a testbed for the experimental Williams-Kilburn tube – a cathode ray tube that was used to store binary digits, aka bits. The reason this became a milestone in computing history was that up until 'Baby' ran the first electronically stored program, there was no means of storing and accessing this information in a cost-effective and flexible way."
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65 Years Ago, Manchester's 'Baby' Ran Electronically Stored Program

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Nobody programs baby in the corner!

  • It goes to show that early adopters are not always capitalized upon, perhaps it is understandable when you consider the UK at the end of WW2 had more pressing issues such as cities to rebuild, population to feed (food shortages were worse after the war than during..).
    • by madprof (4723) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @07:03AM (#44077609)

      In one sense it wasn't missed. Machines like EDSAC and LEO followed shortly afterwards but the US had a booming economy by comparison and it was a lot easier for US businesses (with the much larger internal market as well) to grow big on the back of that.

      • by jonwil (467024)

        I suspect the UK also didn't go as far because of the sensitivities surrounding anything derived from or connected to the Bletchley Park Enigma work (which is where many of the early British computing pioneers and work came from)

        • by Vanders (110092) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @07:25AM (#44077645) Homepage
          In retrospect it turns out that the work on the Colossus wasn't really lost; the guys who had built the Colossus still retained the knowledge, even if they couldn't tell others about it directly, but they cross-pollinated places like Manchester and Cambridge with early knowledge and ideas. That in turn gave us machines such as the LEO, was was really a phenomenally successful line of machines and broke new ground in establishing computers are useful machines for "trivial" tasks, rather than something only a scientist would ever need.

          Computing in the UK really had a head start on the US in many ways, but in usual form it was underfunded and lacked vision; in many ways it suffered from the 50's post-war glow that "Britain Will Always Be Great". Once the Americans got in on the act they of course wiped the floor with everyone, and then socialist government meddling in the 60's just about finished off any hope of the UK compan[y|ies] being able to fight back.
          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            in many ways it suffered from the 50's post-war glow that "Britain Will Always Be Great". Once the Americans got in on the act they of course wiped the floor with everyone,

            Isn't this pretty much the story of all great nations? They get into the habit of acting like #1 and before you know it, they're nothing but #2.

            America, fuck yeah!

            What do they say in China?

          • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

            The same thing is happening with graphene now. We always fail to capitalize on our inventions.

          • by cold fjord (826450) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @09:39PM (#44082129)

            Computing in the UK really had a head start on the US in many ways, but in usual form it was underfunded and lacked vision;

            There was a considerable amount of important computer work done in the UK in the early years. For example, when considering Manchester's contributions one shouldn't overlook the pioneering work done with Atlas [wikipedia.org]. But there is far more than that. In some cases you can trace the path of key developments we rely upon today, or that that probably most people have at least heard of, to things developed in Britain through some familiar names.

            A notable example is the computer language, "BCPL [wikipedia.org]", developed by Dr. Martin Richards [cam.ac.uk] at Cambridge in 1966. Dennis Ritchie ported BCPL to Multics. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie used BCPL on Multics and from it derived the language "B" [wikipedia.org]. Some early Unix utilities were written in the BCPL derivative B. After additional rework of B, it became C, the heart of the Unix system. And of course C has led to the widely used derivatives C++ and Objective C.

            BCPL was also used by Dr. Richards to develop the portable Tripos [wikipedia.org] operating system, which was used on a variety of minicomputers. As microprocessors become ever more powerful and started forming the basis for powerful personal comptuers, Tripos was eventually selected to became the heart of the Amiga's AmigaDOS [wikipedia.org] operating system.

            BCPL has been available on many systems with familiar names, including (reportedly) the Raspberry Pi.

            Classic BCPL [nordier.com]

            To anyone interested in the whys and wherefores of C, a passing acquaintance with BCPL is worthwhile. Viewed forwards through BCPL, rather than backwards through Java and C++, many C constructs, and idiomatic C ways of doing things, just make a lot more sense.

            Beyond its historical importance, BCPL had intrinsic merits. In retrospect, what particularly impresses, is the elegant simplicity of its compiler. This is well documented in the book BCPL: the language and its compiler by Martin Richards and Colin Whitby-Stevens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). -- more [nordier.com]

            BCPL: A tool for compiler writing and system programming [computer.org]
            THE PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE B [bell-labs.com]
            The Development of the C Language [bell-labs.com]

        • by madprof (4723)

          Not at all. These were not classified, they were in open research environments. The plans for Colossus were destroyed.

          EDSAC was inspired by a trip to the US and a lot of what was developed came from the US originally.

          • EDSAC was inspired by a trip to the US and a lot of what was developed came from the US originally.

            Not exactly the whole truth: During the war, computing ideas were shared between Bletchley Park, whose interest was in language relatied stuff, and Los Alamos, whoe interest was Numerical Computing. There were many transatlantic trips, and knowledge was shared.

            After the war, the UK hid all its knowledge for security reasons. In the US, the knowledge was used for commercial profit. Its a cultural difference

            • Not true. The greater decline in manufacturing came under Blair and Brown. At the end of Mrs Thatcher's time as PM, manufacturing fell from 25.8 per cent to 22.5 per cent, under Blair/Brown, manufacturing accounted for more than 20 per cent of the economy in 1997, the year Labour came to power, by 2007, that share declined to 12.4 per cent.

              That ONS figures

              • I have no dispute with your figures - but I was referring specifically to the computer industry. Mrs Thatcher and her ministers frequently proclaimed how we were behind the Americans, even though we had more advanced hardware (transputer) and software in many areas. The public proclamations wrecked our comuter industy's image, and made funding impossible to get - even privately - because the perception was that the government did not want a British computer industry - so why invest in it?
            • After the war, the UK hid all its knowledge for security reasons.

              A classic example of that being the invention of the RSA cipher by a guy at GCHQ. It was locked in a drawer for fear that it would be more use to the Russkies.

        • by mister_dave (1613441) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @01:29PM (#44079257)

          Leo was developed by Lyons, a food manufacturer/wholesaler/retailer. There's a very nice book about about it, A Computer called Leo [amazon.co.uk].

    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @08:18AM (#44077781) Journal

      The UK had a thriving computer industry even into the '80s. Companies like Sinclair did well in the home computer market and Acorn was selling desktops that ran a multitasking GUI very cheaply, with a lot of success in the home and schools markets. The decline started as the IBM PC gained prominence. The UK tech companies found it hard to export to the US, and didn't have as large a domestic market. Selling to mainland Europe required translations, so US companies were able to ramp up economies of scale that left them unable to compete. The ones that were successful, such as ARM (an Acorn spin-off) and Symbian (a Psion spin-off), did so by selling through existing large companies that had an established supply chain.

      One of the big problems with getting large multinational companies in the UK is that it's much harder for tech companies to do well on the LSE. A startup in the US wants to get to be worth about a few hundred million and then IPO and continue to grow. A startup in the UK wants to get to be worth a few hundred million and then sell out to a big company. There are a lot of startups in the UK that make it to a few million market cap mark, but almost none that make it past the billion. A lot of this is due to different investor culture, rather than anything related to the people running the companies.

      • The UK tech companies found it hard to export to the US

        Why?

        Selling to mainland Europe required translations

        Is that a big deal? Especially if you went for a few major languages, like German, first. I would think that European manufacturers would have been more used to the need for translations than American companies.

        P.S. Wish I had mod points to bump up your post.

        • Early computers were large and delicate. Not a good combination if it needs to be shipped across the Atlantic.

          Though the "not invented here" factor probably had more to do with it.

          • Early computers were large and delicate. Not a good combination if it needs to be shipped across the Atlantic.

            If you can ship it by road or rail without problems, you can ship it by sea.

            Though the "not invented here" factor probably had more to do with it.

            Evidence? Or are you just indulging your prejudices again?

            • If you can ship it by road or rail without problems, you can ship it by sea.

              Pity these guys [wikipedia.org] weren't as smart as you, eh? I guess you know exactly which transatlantic railways go up and down with a 50 foot amplitude and which ocean freeways are more prone to sinking.

              Or are you just indulging your prejudices again?

              The mirror is over there ===>.

              You need to stand back a bit (a mile should do) or it won't fit you in.

          • by Vanders (110092)
            The nations of the world had just spent the past ten years shipping large, delicate items around the world, in a war zone no less. Even if that was a real issue, the obvious solution would have been to build a factory in North America. That is after all how American companies solved the problem of selling tabulators, calculators and computers in Europe.

            The problem with a lot of British computer companies was, as usual, lack of vision. LEO Computers was an offshoot from a bakers; the engineers themselves a
            • The nations of the world had just spent the past ten years shipping large, delicate items around the world, in a war zone no less.

              Delicate? Which of the three things Ike credited meet that description?

          • ICL and similar mainframes were shipped to Africa and Austraiia, and were fantastically cost effective (compared to no computer).

            It may be that the cost of shipping to America made it uneconomic to ship to a country that had a native computer industry.

            In the 60's and 70's selling from one country to another was not a widespread activity generally. People just did not expect to do it.

        • The UK tech companies found it hard to export to the US

          Why?

          Because, at the time, the US government would only buy from US tech companies, and most big businesses had their purchasing decisions strongly influenced by what government bought (often for interoperability reasons), which influenced small businesses (for the same reason). Marketing in the USA required a big budget to get national penetration and there wasn't an obvious place to start.

          In contrast, a tech company in California could start selling locally and then just expand slowly into more states. Thei

        • The UK tech companies found it hard to export to the US

          Why?

          IBM

          Selling to mainland Europe required translations

          Is that a big deal? Especially if you went for a few major languages, like German, first. I would think that European manufacturers would have been more used to the need for translations than American companies.

          P.S. Wish I had mod points to bump up your post.

          It isn't a big deal. The dissolution of proprietary architectures is a natural process. It even occured back then.

    • by PPH (736903)

      There's a difference between putting R&D on a back burner while your economy recovers and taking an axe to what you've got. Over manufactured concerns of national security while the USA goes ahead and builds commercial versions of their version.

      And then there's Canada (nobody starving up there in the 1950s) who had to chop up their prototype supersonic interceptor at Boeing's request.

  • by IamTheRealMike (537420) <mike@plan99.net> on Saturday June 22, 2013 @06:55AM (#44077589) Homepage

    Wow. It's easy to forget that the entire industry of programmable computers is younger than a lot of ordinary people walking around today. It makes me wonder what entirely new industry I might see develop from nothing over my lifetime.

    • by FrostedWheat (172733) on Saturday June 22, 2013 @07:30AM (#44077657)
      The surveillance industry.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      Well, it won't be @&!$ flying cars

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Why would anybody use Perl in a flying car?

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      Wow. It's easy to forget that the entire industry of programmable computers is younger than a lot of ordinary people walking around today. It makes me wonder what entirely new industry I might see develop from nothing over my lifetime.

      Actually no, Computers have been around far longer.

      It's only been 65 years since the first ELECTRONICALLY STORED PROGRAM computer has been around.

      Prior to this, computers existed, but the program they ran had to be set up before hand by moving jumpers and other such things aro

      • Prior to this, computers existed, but the program they ran had to be set up before hand by moving jumpers

        Yeah? Well when you did it with gears (that you had to make yourself using a rusty tin-can lid and a blunt file) you can stand on my lawn, mmmkay?

  • Are you referring to those ladies with comptometers? Come on, it's 1950's, everyone knows that this contraption is called an "electronic brain". Computers are so a thing of the past.
  • ... when geeks were bold
    and punch-cards weren't invented
    we drank our joe
    by the warm tube glow
    and went on quite contented.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Is it just me, or does it seem with each passing year, the earliest date in which something is claimed to have happened for the first time gets pushed back a year? Just about this time last year, it seems that it was 64 years ago that the first electronically stored program was run by a computer, and now they're claiming it was 65. Way to revise history, guys. Next you'll be claiming that everyone is a year older now than they were before. Where will it end?

  • In the midst of a history of a similar project at Princeton by George Dyson. Despite the name of the book, Dyson's hero is Johnny von Neuman.
  • When I first started in this industry, I worked with Chris Burton who'd worked on Baby (and later led the team which rebuilt it [digital60.org]); he had known Turing, as had another man I worked with later. Our team was led by Charlie Portman, who gets a credit in The Mythical Man Month [wikipedia.org]. It's pretty amazing how close we are - two generations away - from the legendary figures who founded our industry, who built the first computers.

    Chris was famous in our team because we had some new Mannesman Tally inkjet printers, which could only print ASCII, and we needed them to print bitmaps. The processor in the printers was one that no-one in the team had any experience of. So Chris took the datasheet for the printer, the datasheet for the processor, a dump of the printer ROM, and a square ruled pad home with him on the train, and came back in the morning on the train with code for a new ROM for the printer, written not in assembler but in the actual opcodes (hexadecimal), in pencil on the pad. We blew them into the ROM and it worked first time printing perfect bitmaps, no errors, no bugs to fix.

    That's how good the first generation programmers were. I am still in awe of that. And he was a very modest man, very generous with his experience. I'm proud to have learned from him.

    • by cptnapalm (120276)

      I love stories like this.

      Personally, I think such people should have appellations akin to those of ancient Greek Heroes. I could just be weird, though.

      • I think such people should have appellations akin to those of ancient Greek Heroes

        Given ancient Greek tastes in intimacy, that would be especially appropriate for Turing. Shame the British government didn't see it that way.

    • He, some of MY friends were students when Tom Kilburn was head of CS at Manchester. We went to a lot of the Manchester 50 events, with our baby son. I doubt he remembers.

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      That's how good the first generation programmers were. I am still in awe of that. And he was a very modest man, very generous with his experience. I'm proud to have learned from him.

      Technically, things were also a lot simpler - the ROM was probably only a few K in size, so manual disassembly was a very doable thing. In addition, a programmer had to work at the machine code level - asesmblers were often quite hard to come by (or expensive), so code being hand-assembled was common. Which isn't too bad a thing

  • A billion years ago, when I was studying for my Computer Science degree at Manchester University, the design of the Mark 1 and its test machine was certainly on the curriculum. I remember an exam where I had to describe the evolution of ALUs from Mark I to Cray I. Kids these days just get a bunch of Java and Hadoop.

    I don't where 'Baby' came from, I never heard it referred to as that by the staff who worked on it. I graduated in 1990. I don't think I heard it referred to as 'Baby' until I was living in the '

  • Using a CRT to scan data onto high persistence phosphor, and then use optical sensors to feed that data back to the electron gun created the first dynamic storage system. This machine not only was the first machine with electronic storage, but was the first machine to exercise an example of Dynamic Random Access Memory.

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