From the very start, the computer industry had a love affair withday with Manchester show. acronyms.
Forget LANs and WANs: the SSEM (or Small Scale Experimental Machine) not only represents the birth of the modern computing era, but also a leap away from anything resembling plain English.
"Baby", as the SSEM became known, was one of the first machines that could be described as a computer, and the first to use random access memory (RAM). It was developed in Manchester University by Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams and on 21 June 1948 became the first computer ever to run an electronically stored program. Next week will mark Baby's 50th birthday celebrations.
Starting today, an exhibition at the Manchester Museum tells the story of how Baby was born. From 1946, Freddie Williams had been working on a method of storing information using cathode ray tubes. Bits were stored in the form of a charge on the CRT screen's phosphor, which could be controlled by an electronic beam. Williams devised a method of reading and re-writing the charge to store digital information permanently.
Although CRTs are now only used to display information on monitors, Williams' principle of regeneration is still used to replenish charge on modern integrated circuit RAM.
By the end of 1946, Kilburn had teamed up with Williams in Manchester and the two of them went on to store 2048 bits of information on a CRT.
Baby was built around this storage device, which not only held numbers used in calculations, but also the program instructions themselves.
The first successful program determined the highest factor of small numbers.
Within days, Williams and Kilburn successfully tried it on 2 to the power 18, a task involving 2.1 million instructions completed in 52 minutes.
Although it would hardly worry IBM's Kasparov-beating Deep Blue, the significance of Baby's performance was not lost on Williams. "A program was laboriously inserted and the start switch pressed," he later commented.
"Immediately the spots on the display tube entered a mad dance. In early trials it was a 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."
The exhibition also features the Enigma machine devised by fathers of modern computing such as Alan Turing in the Second World War at Britain's code-breaking centre in Bletchley Park, and the latest developments in the computing industry, including virtual reality and video conferencing.
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