1988 reconstruction

Seventy years since the first software program ran

Today is the 70th anniversary of the first successful execution of the world’s first software program which I wrote about on this blog on the occasion of the 65th anniversary, which was also commemorated with a specially commissioned video on Google’s official blog. The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), nicknamed Baby, was the world’s first stored-program computer i.e. the first computer that you could program for different tasks without rewiring or physical reconfiguration. The Baby was designed by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and my father Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21st June 1948.

It is the first anniversary of the Baby which my father hasn’t celebrated, as he passed away last October at the grand old age of 95. His contribution to the development of the modern day computer was recognised with obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, Guardian and the Times – the last of these was the most detailed and is reproduced here by kind permission of The Times. It reminds me of how gratified my father was to successfully debug a program that Alan Turing gave him to run on the Baby in the autumn of 1948! Apart from the Baby, Geoff Tootill worked on many, very varied scientific developments, including airborne radar during the Second World War, the first commercial computer at Ferranti, satellite communications, packet switching networks which foreshadowed the web, air traffic control and collision avoidance at sea. His final computing legacy was the phonetic algorithm that we use today in matchIT.

I’m in Manchester where there is a working replica of the Baby on display at the Museum of Science and Industry – my brother Peter will be handing over a test device that our father used when building the Baby, to be exhibited alongside the replica. Volunteers from the Computer Conservation Society are rerunning the first program. It will be great to catch up with Chris Burton who led the team that built the reconstruction of the Baby for the 50th anniversary in 1998 and to meet again Professor Dai Edwards who worked with my father in 1948. There are very few of the pioneers left now from those early days, so it is wonderful that the Computer Conservation Society has kept alive their legacy by lovingly reconstructing the machines that they built, including the Colossus at Bletchley Park. We owe them a heartfelt “Thank you!”