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Dead medium: the Baby Mark I Computer
From: awagner@darm.SOS.STATE.NJ.US
CECrouch@aol.com (Charlie Crouch) and (Albin Wagner)

Source; The Times (London) February 18, 1997, page 8

"Enthusiasts rebuild 7ft Baby computer that changed world"

by Russell Jenkins

"A primitive forerunner of the personal computer has been rebuilt by a team of engineers as a 50th anniversary tribute to the unsung pioneers whose genius founded the electronic digital age.

"The computer was officially born on June 21, 1948, when Tom Kilburn, a young research engineer, ran the first program through the Mark 1 machine == beating the Americans and making Manchester the birthplace of the computer.

"The Mark 1, or Baby, as it came to be known, was the world's first electronic digital computer capable of storing a program. Its mass of cathode ray tubes and more than 500 valves were part of a machine that stood 7ft high and 18 ft long.

"Volunteer computer archivists, led by Chris Burton, a retired engineer, have recreated over three years the earliest model of Baby at Manchester Computing, part of Manchester University, several hundred yards from where it all began.

"The replica will be switched on in its own gallery at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in June next year as the centerpiece to the city's birthday celebrations of the computer age.

"Mr Burton, of the Computer Conservation Society, was inspired to rebuild Baby as a homage to the men he believes were as important as James Watt to the advent of the steam age. They were 'modest, clever' men, he said, who never received the acclaim they deserved.

"Mr Burton, a retired ICL computer engineer from Oswestry, Shropshire, said: 'The first objective is to recognise the achievement of men whose light has never been allowed to shine out. I want to make manifest a triumph of British innovation to counter the general misunderstanding that computers were an American invention. They were not.'

"Another aim is to show today's computer-literate youngsters what it was like to be one of the handful of people with a vision of how information could be stored electronically, and to give them an idea of the conditions in which the pioneers worked. The equipment was always in danger of overheating and exploding.

"Contemporary photographs show earnest, white-coated young men adjusting dials and checking cathode ray tubes. They were men like the late Professor Freddie Williams, who oversaw the project as holder of the Chair of Electrotechnics.

"The guiding force behind Manchester's success was Tom Kilburn, a Yorkshire man then aged 26. He was joined by Geoff Tootill, Dai Edwards, Alec Robinson and Tommy Thomas. They were following on the work of Alan Turing on Colossus, the Second World War code-breaker based at Bletchley Park. The team was in a race between Cambridge and the United States. In America, the ENIAC computing machine boasted 18,000 vacuum tubes (valves) but it could not store a program.

"The Manchester team perfected the use of cathode ray tubes for storing data. The prototype had a memory of 1024 bits - tiny by modern standards.

"Professor Williams once said: 'A program was laboriously inserted and the start switch pressed. Immediately the spots on the display tube entered a mad dance. In early trials it was the dance of death leading to no useful result. 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.'"

(((This Dead Media Working Note was sent in near- simultaneously from two different sources in Britain and the USA -- bruces@well)))

Charlie Crouch (CECrouch@aol.com) Albin Wagner (awagner@darm.SOS.STATE.NJ.US)