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!”

Remembering the helpIT Legacy

 

“You’ve come a long way, Baby”: Remembering the world’s first stored program computer

Last Friday was the 65th anniversary of the first successful execution of the world’s first software program and it was great to see the occasion marked by a post and specially commissioned video on Google’s official blog, complete with an interview earlier this month with my father, Geoff Tootill. 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 program was a routine to determine the highest proper factor of any number. Of course, because nobody had written one before, the word “program” wasn’t used to describe it and “software” was a term that nobody had coined. The SSEM was designed by the team of Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21st June 1948.

Geoff Tootill Notebook

I have heard first hand my father’s stories about being keen to work winter overtime as it was during post-war coal rationing and the SSEM generated so much heat that it was much the cosiest place to be! Also, his habit of keeping one hand in his pocket when touching any of the equipment to prevent electric shocks. Before going to work on the Manchester machine, my father worked on wartime development and commissioning of radar, which he says was the most responsible job he ever had (at the age of just 21), despite his work at Manchester and (in the 60’s) as Head of Operations at the European Space Research Organisation. Although he is primarily an engineer, a hardware man, my father graduated in Mathematics from Cambridge University and had all the attributes to make an excellent programmer. I like to think that my interest in and aptitude for software stemmed from him in both nature and nurture – although aptitude for hardware and electronics didn’t seem to rub off on me. He was extremely interested in the software that I initially wrote for fuzzy matching of names and addresses as it appealed to him both as a computer scientist and as a linguist. My father then went on to design the uniquely effective phonetic algorithm, soundIT, which powers much of the fuzzy matching in helpIT’s software today, as I have written about in my blog post on the development of our phonetic routine.

The Manchester computing pioneers have not had enough recognition previously, and I’m delighted that Google has paid tribute to my father and his colleagues for their contribution to the modern software era – and to be able to acknowledge my father’s place in the evolution of our company.

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