IT World: Looking Back at a Founding Father

By Burnett, Gary | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), June 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

IT World: Looking Back at a Founding Father


Burnett, Gary, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


TODAY the Information Technology business is worth billions and is a growing, dynamic and global industry. It employees millions of people and is transforming the way in which people live in every continent of the globe.

But it all started just 50 years ago this month. And amazingly, although the epicentre of today's computer centre is undoubtedly the United States, the first computer and the first computer program was produced by a Yorkshireman based in Manchester.

At 11 a. m. on June 21 1948, Tom Kilburn set his computer the task of finding the highest proper factor of two to the power of 18. This, of course, would be a very simple job for anybody's personal computer today, but Kilburn's experiment 50 years ago was one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the century.

A couple of years earlier, Kilburn had moved to the University of Manchester to join Freddie Williams, Professor of Electro-technics, so that they could work on the digital storage of information on a Cathode Ray Tube. It was known worldwide that an effective electronic storage mechanism was essential to the progress of electronic digital computers, and Freddie Williams thought he could solve the problem using CRTs.

In late 1946 Freddie Williams had succeeded in storing one bit on a CRT. Tom Kilburn spent the first few weeks of 1947 transferring the whole of the equipment for the experiment up to Manchester. By March Tom Kilburn had suggested an improved method of storing bits, and by the end of 1947 they were able to store 2048 bits on a CRT, having explored various techniques. They were now ready to build a small computer round this storage device, subsequently called the Williams Tube, though Williams-Kilburn Tube would have been more accurate. …

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