Bobbie Johnson

Engineers in Manchester celebrate the 60th birthday of the first digital computer

Called the Small Scale Experimental Machine

It took 52 minutes to answer a maths problem

LONDON: Weighing in at over a tonne and comprising 1,500 valves and kilometres of wiring, it is not what most people would recognise today as a computer.

Despite its antiquated appearance, however, this enormous machine — once nicknamed ‘The Baby’ — was once the cutting edge of technology. Some of the pioneering engineers behind it gathered in Manchester on Friday to celebrate the birthday of what was the world’s first digital computer.

Sixty years ago that day, The Baby completed its first calculation, giving birth to technologies which we are still using.

The anniversary drew some of the pioneering engineers involved in its development to the city’s Museum of Science and Industry to see a replica of the machine in action.

“The birth of The Baby changed the world forever,” said John Perkins, a Professor at a local university’s faculty of engineering. “We hope the celebrations will raise the profile of computer science and encourage the brightest and best of the next generation.”

Early trials

Formally called the Small Scale Experimental Machine, The Baby filled a laboratory at the university but had less processing power than a 21st century calculator. In early trials the machine failed to produce a result. But on the morning of June 21, 1948, Baby finally delivered: offering the answer to a mathematics problem that it had been posed 52 minutes earlier.

Geoff Tootill, the only surviving member of the three-man team who built the device, said he had no idea about what the future held when the switch was flicked.

“We couldn’t foresee that a computer could be so inexpensive and so powerful. It’s been borne on me over the years that the computer was becoming not only more important, but also more known to the public — this was completely foreign to us. In the 1940s we were accustomed to the very tight security discipline during the War.”

That first program the machine processed in 1948 was intended to solve a complex mathematical problem: determining the highest proper factor of 2 to the power of 18. And yet the machine could not add or multiply — it could only subtract. But Baby was at the edge of technology. Teams from around the world were racing against one another to produce the first modern computer, with academics and engineers in the U.S. and Germany close to building functioning machines. Although other computers had been built when Baby came into operation, they were designed for a single job or required rewiring to perform a different calculation.

Baby was the first which could be reconfigured for different tasks simply by altering programs in its memory.

Instead of storing information on a hard drive, as is done today, Baby kept its data in a cathode ray tube — the same sort of technology used in TV screens.

Manchester was one of the world’s leading centres of computer science and development, and later that year Alan Turing — the mathematician made famous for decoding Nazi ciphers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War — joined the university to help work on Baby’s successors. That produced the Manchester Mk 1, one of the first commercially available computers, and the forebear of modern home computing.

Tribute to pioneers

Chris Burton, who masterminded the building of the replica, said it was necessary to capture a tangible tribute to the pioneers in Manchester who brought about this revolution.

Baby’s power pales in comparison to even the most common modern gadgets — an iPod can hold more than 640 million times more information. And the most powerful supercomputers today are light years ahead of the first model. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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