Manchester Mark I

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The Manchester Mark 1 was one of the earliest stored-program computers, developed at the Victoria University of Manchester from the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or "Baby". It was also called the Manchester Automatic Digital Machine, or MADM.[1] Work began in August 1948, and the first version was operational by April 1949; a program written to search for Mersenne primes ran error-free for nine hours on the night of 16/17 June 1949.

The machine's successful operation was widely reported in the British press, which used the phrase "electronic brain" in describing it to their readers. That description provoked a reaction from the head of the University of Manchester's Department of Neurosurgery, the start of a long-running debate as to whether an electronic computer could ever be truly creative.

The Mark 1 was initially developed to provide a computing resource within the university, to allow researchers to gain experience in the practical use of computers, but it very quickly also became a prototype on which the design of Ferranti's commercial version could be based. Development ceased at the end of 1949, and the machine was scrapped towards the end of 1950, replaced in February 1951 by a Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercially available general-purpose computer.[2]

The computer is especially historically significant because of its pioneering inclusion of index registers, an innovation which made it easier for a program to read sequentially through an array of words in memory. Thirty-four patents resulted from the machine's development, and many of the ideas behind its design were incorporated in subsequent commercial products such as the IBM 701 and 702 as well as the Ferranti Mark 1. The chief designers, Frederic C. Williams and Tom Kilburn, concluded from their experiences with the Mark 1 that computers would be used more in scientific roles than in pure mathematics. In 1951 they started development work on Meg, the Mark 1's successor, which would include a floating point unit.

Contents

Background

In 1936, mathematician Alan Turing published a definition of a theoretical "universal computing machine", a computer which held its program on tape, along with the data being worked on. Turing proved that such a machine was capable of solving any conceivable mathematical problem for which an algorithm could be written.[3] During the 1940s, Turing and others such as Konrad Zuse developed the idea of using the computer's own memory to hold both the program and data, instead of tape,[4] but it was mathematician John von Neumann who became widely credited with defining that stored-program computer architecture, on which the Manchester Mark 1 was based.[5]

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