The First Ever Electronically Stored Program Ran 65 Years Ago Today

Sixty five years ago, in a cluttered lab in Manchester, UK, three scientists changed the world of computing forever. Working with a machine they'd built and nicknamed Baby, they ran the first ever program to be stored electronically in a computer's memory.

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Put together by “Freddie” Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, ghe computer—officially called the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine—was 5 meters long, weighed a ton, and was a testbed for the experimental Williams-Kilburn tube. That was a newly proposed means of storing bits of data using a cathode ray tube, and if it worked, it looked set to provide the first ever means of storing and flexibly accessing information in electronic form.

It did work, supplying Baby with what amounted to the earliest form of RAM—of which it had just 128 bytes. (The computer you're using now has billions of times more, but you already knew that.) And that's what allowed the computer to be the first to run a program electronically stored in its memory—a huge turning point in the world of computing.

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Sadly Baby was a proof-of-concept, and nothing remain of the original device—though there is replica on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, UK. Check it out if you're ever close by. [Google]

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DISCUSSION

Very nice indeed. Prior to 1945 all computers were either hard-wired to perform a single task, or controlled by a tape defining a sequence of operations. During the ENIAC project consultant John Von Neumann conceived of the electronically stored program and in 1945 published the idea in the now-famous document First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. He went on to implement the idea in the computer he built at the Institute for Advance Study (IAS) at Princeton, but the Brits beat him to it. The "First Draft" report is controversial, as Von Neumann, who one of the foremost mathematicians in the world, omitted the names of the other two architects of ENIAC, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert; they went on to found UNIVAC.

EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was the follow-on to ENIAC, and was a stored-program computer. However, the route to modern computers goes more through the IAS machine. It was widely duplicated and heavily influenced the design of early IBM products which went on to dominate the early computer market. For more on the IAS machine, read the splendid Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson. He makes a compelling case that Von Neumann's IAS machine is the true progenitor of all modern computers.