The one-tonne baby

BBC ran an article recently on ‘Baby’, aka The Small Scale Experimental Machine – the first computer to contain real memory. This computer follows ENIAC and Colossus but it is right up there with them in terms of historical interest, particularly because the other two weren’t electronically re-programmable, so weren’t really computers in the modern sense of the word. It was also quite amusing to read that the programmers chose a test program that involved finding highest factors of prime numbers because they didn’t have a real display!

Looking at this bit of history, I can’t help but compare the state of computing in those days with that of robotics today (particularly, the nascent area of autonomous and learning robots). We have people in different labs building large, still rather clunky, machines – that spend a significant portion of their lives being rewired or re-programmed – and the size of whose vocabulary of feats/tricks is in single digits. We are still waiting for the conceptual clarity that came with ideas such as Turing machines and universality, for the experimental convenience associated with the whole concept of virtual machines and for the critical mass that enables real growth. It’s happening though…

PS: The BCS Edinburgh branch is organizing a visit to Bletchley Park, where Colossus and other historical computers reside. Should be fun!

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