Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Small-Scale Experimental Machine ('Baby') A.D. 1948

On 1st September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of children from Manchester and Salford were evacuated to the relative safety of the surrounding countryside. As one of the largest industrial estates in Europe, Trafford Park was turned over to war production, with Rolls Royce, Avro and Metropolitan-Vickers making the engines and aircraft required by the RAF. Its strategic importance made the area a target for air raids by the Luftwaffe, the most devastating of which took place on the nights of 22nd and 23rd December 1940. Whilst the industrial areas around Old Trafford, Stretford and Salford bore the brunt of the bombing, damage was reported from as far afield as Prestwich and Chorlton. Around 650 people died in the attacks, with over 2,000 injured and 6,000 made homeless. As Nazi propaganda declared that the entire city had been burnt to the ground, King George VI and Winston Churchill visited to assess the damage.

Elected in the landslide election of 1945 with 12,000,000 votes (50%), Clement Atlee's post-war Labour government nationalised the coal and steel industries and created the National Health Service. 'Austerity Britain' relied heavily on loans from the United States as it sought to re-build its damaged infrastructure. Large-scale immigration from the British Empire began in this period (from Hong Kong, the Indian subcontinent and the Carribean), adding to Manchester's already cosmopolitan mix of Irish and Jewish enclaves in the north and south of the city. Polish and Ukrainian immigrants also arrived as Stalin's Russia began to assert itself in Eastern Europe. The growing instability of the British Empire was reflected in the highly influential 5th Pan-African Congress, held in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall in October 1945, which led to the decolonization of Africa, and further political if not economic independence for its newly independent nations.

On 19th February 1945, Matt Busby, a 36-year-old Scotsman and practising Catholic who had played for Manchester City and Liverpool in the 1930s, was appointed manager of Manchester United and given an unprecented level of control over team selection, player transfers and training sessions. Playing their home games at Maine Road, Old Trafford having been severely damaged in the Manchester Blitz, United came second in the league in 1947 and won the FA Cup in 1948, beating Blackpool 4-2 in the final to gain their first trophy in 37 years. In the same year, a proposed extension to Sunlight House on Quay Street was rejected by the planning committee. At 35 floors, this imposing 110m skyscraper would have been the tallest building in Europe but was felt to be unsympathetic to a city still rebuilding itself after the devastation of World War II. If post-war 'Austerity' Manchester was scaling back its architectural ambitions, then the year 1948 would also see a major technological revolution which would have a global impact in the years to come.

Based on mathematician and former Bletchley Park cryptanalyst Alan Turing's pioneering work on algorithms and computation, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (nicknamed 'Baby') ran its first program on 21st July 1948 at Manchester University in which it took 52 minutes to find the highest proper divisor of 2^18. Designed as a testbed for the Williams tube, an early form of Random Access Memory (or RAM), the SSEM was the world's first stored-program computer. Whilst Turing was based at Manchester from September 1948 until his death in 1954 and did contribute towards and make use of its successors, the SSEM was built by a team led by Manchester graduates Frederic Williams and Tom Kilburn (an avid Man United fan). It was to form the basis for the Manchester Mark I (1949) and the Ferranti Mark I (1951), the world's first commercially available general-purpose computer.

There is a memorial in Sackville Park to Alan Turing who as well as being widely regarded as the father of computer science was also an early patron of Manchester's Gay Village at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. His death at his home in Wilmslow from Cyanide Poisoning in June 1954 was returned as a suicide verdict and followed a conviction for indecency in 1952. Next to his body was a half-eaten apple. Unveiled in 2001, the Turing statue in Sackville Park has him sitting at a bench holding an apple in his right hand. Regardless of how we interpret the apple as a symbol, what is clear is that there is a strand linking Turing with the latest developments in computer technology, for example Apple's iPad (2010) which is displayed alongside the replica SSEM at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Barack Obama recognised this link in his historic 2011 speech to both Houses of Parliament: '...from Alan Turing to Steve Jobs, we have led the world in our commitment to science and cutting-edge research.' Manchester's role in the dawn of the computer age was small but significant. It came as Asian and Far Eastern countries, sources of seemingly unlimited cheap labour, were becoming more and more competitive in the textile industry. Manchester's challenge over the next fifty years was to diversify away from textiles and re-invent itself as a dynamic postindustrial economy in an increasingly globalized world.

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