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The Beginnings of the Manchester Computer Phenomenon: People and Influences

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129779D
Original Publication Date: 1993-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

MARY CROARKEN: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

This article studies the prehistory of computers at Manchester University. Scientific computation in Britain during and immediately after World War II is briefly described. Computers at Manchester University had two main initial influences: M.H.A. Newman and F.C. Williams. Biographies of these two men are given and their wartime work examined in the light of computer development at Manchester. The period from 1946 to 1948 is discussed as the start of computer research at Manchester. The article ends at the point when the Manchester ";baby machine"; was operational and outside interests ensured the continuation of computer science research at Manchester.

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Copyright ©; 1993 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Beginnings of the Manchester Computer Phenomenon: People and Influences

MARY CROARKEN

This article studies the prehistory of computers at Manchester University. Scientific computation in Britain during and immediately after World War II is briefly described. Computers at Manchester University had two main initial influences: M.H.A. Newman and F.C. Williams. Biographies of these two men are given and their wartime work examined in the light of computer development at Manchester. The period from 1946 to 1948 is discussed as the start of computer research at Manchester. The article ends at the point when the Manchester "baby machine" was operational and outside interests ensured the continuation of computer science research at Manchester.

In the late 1940s Manchester University was in the forefront of computer research. From the work done at Manchester came the first prototype stored-program computer (known later as the Manchester baby) and a succession of well-known machines, including the Manchester Mark I, Mark I*, Mercury, and Atlas.

Computers at Manchester University had two early influences: F.C. Williams and M.H.A. Newman. In their different ways, Newman and Williams created the circumstances for innovative computer research to begin at Manchester. By the early 1950s, both men had become interested in other fields of research, but by then they had already laid the foundations of the Manchester computer phenomenon.

To understand how Newman and Williams influenced events at Manchester, one must first examine how these men became interested in building (or seeing built) an electronic computer within the framework of computing machine research in postwar Britain.

Computing machine development in postwar Britain

During, and for some time after, World War II scientific computation in Britain was carried out primarily using desk calculating machines. Exceptions to this general rule, of course, existed. Punched-card machines had been used at the Nautical Almanac Office for calculating positions of the moon and for Fourier synthesis by L.J. Comrie, S. Chapman, and others. Two full-size differential analyzers had been built in Britain before the war at Manchester and Cambridge Universities. But in the main, desk calculators or accounting machines were applied to scientific computation.

World War II had shown the value within the Admiralty of having a centralized computing facility equipped with a range of calculating machine operated by a knowledgeable staff. To answer a growing demand for computing facilities, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) Mathematics Division was set up in 1945 under the superintendentship of J.R. Womersley. The NPL Mathematics Division was intended to act as a national computing center. Its initial sections were Mathem...