Author: Chris Burton, Martin Campbell-Kelly, Simon Lavington & Roger Johnson
Publisher: British Computer Society, 2012
Aimed at: Those interested in computer history and hardware enthusiasts
Pros: Well researched and presented historical account
Cons: More about machines than personalities
Reviewed by: Sue Gee
Published to mark the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, this book casts a wide net and celebrates the efforts of many UK computer pioneers in the period 1945-1955.
Given that 2012 was celebrated as Alan Turing Centenary Year some readers may be expecting more in the way of biography than is provided by this book. The topic it tackles is better represented by its subtitle, Building the world's first computers, although even this needs qualification. A little information is included about the developments taking place in the United States, specifically ENIAC and EDVAC, and the influence of John von Neumann is mentioned, this is a UK-centric look at the history of the computer.
Four distinguished authors contributed to this book, all of them active members of the Computer Conservation Society which sponsored its publication, with financial support from the BCS (British Computer Society). This collaboration has really worked, successfully avoiding repetition and permitting authoritative insights into the different stands of this complex history.
The inclusion of photographs from many sources is another notable achievement. There are photographs, complemented by extended, informative captions, of the characters we are introduced to as well as of the computers and computer components they created. Additional technical information about hardware architecture, for example delay lines and CRT storage, is also provided in annotated diagrams.
Chapter 1 provides the background to this story. With the title "The ideas men" Simon Lavington opens with a cryptic mention of Bletchley Park's world war saying that Alan Turing was "perhaps the most brilliant of the team of very clever team of people recruited to work there." It goes on to mention the radar research going on during the Second World War at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) and at Admiralty Signals Establishment (ASE) in Surrey.
The first of Turing's contemporaries to be introduced is Douglas Hartree and then the scene shifts to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania where Presper Eckert and John Mauchley were working on ENIAC, described as a "huge electronic calculator". Mention is made of the fact that Maurice Wilkes work at Cambridge grew out of the Moore School ideas and that they also influenced Max Newman in Manchester with forward references to Chapters 3 and 4 respectively.
Back to Turing himself there is a introductory overview:
Alan Turing was a most remarkable man. A great original, quite unmoved by authority, convention or bureaucracy, he turned his fertile mind to many subjects during his tragically short life., Though classed in the Scientific Hall of Fame as a mathematician and logician, he explored areas as diverse as artificial intelligence (AI) and morphogenesis (the growth and form of living things).
This is followed by a chronological summary of his career and a discussion of how his early theoretical work, including the seminal paper "On Computable Numbers" was responsible for his recruitment to Bletchley Park and then to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to build a general purpose digital computer.
A few additional details of his life and personality are given in later chapters all of which reinforce the idea that Turing was a polymath who turned his mind to many different topics but the focus of the book now turns to the British Computer projects in the period 1948 - 54 that are summarised in a diagram in Chapter 1 and described in detail in Chapters 2 to 6.
Chapter 2 is about the ACE - the machine designed at the NPL by Turing. In fact Turing's role in the project was a bit patchy. He asked for leave of absence while it was being built, going to Cambridge for a year in which he devoted himself to artificial intelligence and devised the Turing Test and had resigned from the NPL before the Pilot ACE ran its first program, moving to Manchester University to take up his post as Deputy Director of the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory. For those interested in historic hardware, the chapter provides details of its storage system that relied on mercury delay lines. The chapter ends with the Deuce, the successor to the ACE built by English Electric.
Chapter 3, written by Martin Campbell-Kelly is mainly about the EDSAC computer built at Cambridge University by Maurice Wilkes, but LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), the first machine designed specifically for business is also introduced in this chapter. Then in Chapter 4 Christopher Burton joins Simon Lavington to give us an account of the work of Freddie Williams, Tom Kilburn and others at the University of Manchester including the SSEM (or Baby) and the Manchester Mark I. Turing's programming system for the Ferranti Mark I is described in this chapter as "not for the faint hearted".
Chapter 5 is about the secret computers funded by the Admiralty and built by the scientific instrument company Elliot at its Borehamwood Laboratories in Hertfordshire.which introduced nickel delay lines and standard logic packaged circuits. The chapter also discusses the move to the civil marketplace and the contributions of Christopher Strachey.
Roger Johnson is the author of Chapter 6 which is about work, linked to Birkbeck College, University of London. Its central character is Andrew Booth and the machines described include his SEC (Simple Electronic Computer) and various models of the APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computers) with a section devoted to the Booth Multiplier, a fast arithmetic unit that is still in use in some computers today. In it we learn quite a bit about Andrew Booth and his wife Kathleen, who was the author of an early book on programming the APEC in 1958.
Chapter 7 has the title "Into the Marketplace" and Simon Lavington looks at how different groups took early computers into the three areas of defence; science and engineering; and commercial business data processing. It includes an interesting chart which gives the dates on which the computers covered in the book ran their first programs and a list of the customers and applications of the first five years of UK computer production.
Simon Lavington's final chapter, "Hindsight and Foresight: the legacy of Turing and his contemporaries" opens by looking at the influence of the groups of computer pioneers at Cambridge, Manchester, Borehamwood and Birkbeck. It then tackles the topic of how Turing was viewed by his contemporaries, acknowledging that he wasn't an easy person to work with even though he was "held in awe". It also explains why his ideas for computer design were not taken up by other pioneers.
The final section on Turing's posthumous reputation mentions both his persecution by society for his homosexuality and the official apology by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 and the fact that since the 1970s, when details of the wartime cryptanalysis efforts at Bletchley Park started to filter out, Turing has been considered a "national treasure".
The book has three appendixes. One is a list of further reading, another is an extended timeline of Turing's time at NPL and at Manchester University and the one that most readers will find most interesting is a technical comparison of five of the computers included in earlier chapters.
By focusing on the hardware as well as on its creators, this slim volume makes a significant contribution to the early history of computing. It is fascinating to learn how the different initiatives were, and in some case were not, influenced by each other.
As is evident from the number of links included in this article, I Programmer has lots of articles about topics covered in this book:
Alan Turing Year Starts Today
Eckert & Mauchly and ENIAC
Alan Turing's ACE
Maurice Wilkes and EDSAC
LEO - Lyons Electronic Office
From Baby to Mark I
The Manchester Computers