2009's major milestone for computing pioneers

2009's major milestone for computing pioneers

Summary: Two historic British computers, the Manchester Mark 1 and Edsac, went live 60 years ago next year. Both systems were the immediate forerunners of the first commercial systems

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  • Next year marks the 60th anniversaries of two landmark UK contributions to business computing history. The Manchester Mark 1, pictured above, and Edsac computers both became fully operational in 1949.

    Scientists working at the British universities of Manchester and Cambridge developed the machines, which are remarkable for notching up several computing firsts.

    The Manchester Mark 1, for example, was to become the first machine to use a type of index register, improving program and memory efficiency. It was also the system on which Autocode, one of the first high-level languages, was later developed.

    Photograph © The University of Manchester 1998, 1999

  • Cambridge University's Edsac, or Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, pictured above, is considered the first practical example of a machine holding program instructions in memory.

    However, the significance of Edsac and the Manchester Mark 1 does not stop there. Both machines went on to form the basis of two milestone commercial systems: Edsac spawned Leo 1, while the Manchester computer was the immediate forerunner of the Ferranti Mark 1.

    Leo 1 was the world's first business computer. From September 1951, it ran an application called Bakeries Valuations, organising logistics for catering company Lyons's famous tea shops and London Corner Houses.

    The Ferranti Mark 1 became the world's first commercially available computer in February 1951, beating America's Univac 1 to market by as little as one month, according to some estimates.

    Photograph © 2008 University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory. Reproduced by permission

  • From the control panel, pictured above, Leo 1's operators eventually ran applications on the 500kHz system that extended from weekly payroll calculations to accounts and management reports. The Edsac-based Leo — or Lyons Electronic Office — started out with punched card and paper tape readers, but later versions switched to magnetic tape.

    Despite initial teething problems, the Leo 1 system became efficient enough for Lyons to offer computing services to other companies, including Ford UK, in what can be seen as a pioneering outsourcing service. Lyons also ended up building Leo machines for external organisations.

    Photograph © 2008 Leo Computers Society

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Topic: Tech Industry

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