Clocking in the digital age
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First working parts of the EDSAC reconstruction are demonstrated at a celebration of the centenary Sir Maurice Wilkes, father of British computing
The centenary of the birth of Sir Maurice Wilkes, widely regarded as the father of British computing, has been celebrated with a demonstration of the first working parts of the recreation of EDSAC to be built and displayed at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park.
EDSAC, originally designed by a team led by Wilkes at the University of Cambridge in 1947, was the world's first practical general purpose computer. Built to provide a computing service rather than just a computer, EDSAC's impact on both science and business were profound. By enabling complex and time-consuming calculations to be performed automatically and rapidly, it widened research horizons and led to three Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. In the business world, a copy of EDSAC, known as LEO, became the world's first commercial computer.
At the Wilkes' centenary celebrations, the first components of the EDSAC reconstruction including its internal clock were demonstrated to an audience that included Wilkes' family members and an operator of the original EDSAC. The recreation of EDSAC, when completed by a team of volunteers in two years' time, will be used to inform the public about Britain's rich computer heritage and to inspire young people to learn about engineering and computer science, skills in short supply in today's economy.
Andrew Herbert, leader of the EDSAC Replica Project, said: "Sir Maurice Wilkes is in the pantheon of computer greats. His practical vision was liberating and the impact of his work was profound. EDSAC speeded up productivity by a factor in the order of 1500 -- such an advance has never been equalled in a single step before or since. To recreate his computer is quite some challenge -- to conceive, design and create it from scratch was an achievement of a different order!"
Dr David Hartley, now Museum Director of TNMOC and who at Cambridge University in the 1950s/60s was supervised by and later worked with Wilkes said: "Sir Maurice Wilkes was a visionary leader in the early days of computing. In designing EDSAC, he set out to provide a computing service, not just a computing testbed. He was very proud of that achievement, but he rarely looked back, he was always moving forward."
Anthony Wilkes, son of Sir Maurice Wilkes, said: "My father was a man of great intellect with a strong practical streak. If I came to him with a scientific or mathematical problem he would elucidate with effortless simplicity. From an early age my two sisters and I were conscious of computers – in a way we were one of the first computer-age families."
The demonstrations of working components in the partially reconstructed EDSAC at the Wilkes' centenary celebration included the clock pulse generator and digit pulse generator, the Half Adder, and address de-coding.
The EDSAC Replica Project which began in 2011 is expected to be completed in 2015. EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator), which contained 3000 electronic tubes (or valves) and just over 140 chassis (shelves), will occupy 20 square metres and is expected to be a huge draw at The National Museum of Computing where heritage computers including the rebuild of the 1940's Colossus computer and the original 1950's Harwell Dekatron / WITCH computer are already working and on display. EDSAC components, but not the working unit, can be seen by visitors to TNMOC. The EDSAC Replica Project has been funded by a consortium led by Hermann Hauser.
Follow updates on the EDSAC Replica Project progress at www.edsac.org.
Stephen Fleming at Palam Communications for the EDSAC Replica Project
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