“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.

An excerpt from Geoff Tootill’s 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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