Computing in Cottonopolis

A 1951 article about the Manchester computer, reprinted in The Guardian today.

To think of two twelve-figure numbers and write them down and then to multiply them together would involve considerable mental effort for many people, and could scarcely be done in much under a quarter of an hour. A machine will be officially “opened” at Manchester University on Monday which does this sort of calculation 320 times a second. Provisionally named “Madam” – from the initials of Manchester Automatic Digital Machine and because of certain unpredictable tendencies – it is a high-speed electronic computer built for the University Mathematics Department, and paid for by a Government grant. It is an improved version of a prototype developed by Professor F. C. Newman and Dr. T. Kilburn of the Electrical Engineering Department, and Professor M. A. Newman and Mr. A. Turing, of the Mathematics Department.
The practical applications of the machine are great and varied, and it is, of course, of greatest use where long, repetitive calculations are involved, some of which would probably be impossible without its aid.  There are also commercial possibilities as yet unexplored relating to accountancy and wage departments. It is significant that one of the largest catering firms in the country has recently installed a similar machine, which may replace the work of hundreds of clerks. Will it perhaps solve the problems of redundancy it may create? Large-scale private or national statistics can be prepared in a far more up-to-date form, in some cases in a matter of weeks rather than years. Finally, of course, there are such sidelines as teaching the machine to play chess or bridge.
There are two features that might be mentioned: the magnetic drum for storing permanent information and the cathode-ray tubes for storing information produced in the course of a calculation. These have added immensely to the “memory” of such machines. The magnetic drum will hold 650,000 binary digits and each of the eight cathode-tubes sixty-four twenty-digit numbers. It will add up 500 numbers before you could say “addition”, and it could work out in half a day the logarithmic tables which took Napier and Briggs almost a lifetime.
It is an alarming machine, in fact. A tool like a plough is friendly and intelligible, but this reduction to absurdity of mental arithmetic is another matter. Those associated with the machine stress that what it can do depends on the “programme” fed to it. Nobody knows what Manchester’s machine will be able to do, and Mr. Turing said to-day that, although it will be used on problems of pure mathematics, the main idea is to investigate the possibilities and theory of such machines.  In an article in “Mind” six months ago, Mr. Turing seemed to come to the conclusion that eventually digital computers would be able to do something akin to “thinking” and also discussed the possibilities of educating a “child-machine.”  One feels that whatever “Madam” can do she will do it for Mr. Turing.

The government grant mentioned in paragraph 1 was awarded to the pure mathematician Max Newman because of his secret cryptographic work at Bletchley Park during WW II.   Because of that work, he knew Turing and his capabilities very well, and recruited him to Manchester to work on the project.   It is interesting that even in a newspaper article published in 1951 mention was made of machines playing chess.
An earlier post on long-lived memories of Alan Turing is here.  Some information about Turing’s death is here, including his mother’s theory that his death by poison was accidental, occurring while he attempted to silver-plate a spoon.

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