Programming for a high speed automatic calculating machine. (M.V. Wilkes).

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A volunteer at TNMOC doesn’t spend all of the time with hardware and software, or even our visitors. This week I found myself sorting through some old documents, which I confess I find fascinating and came across a draft of a paper by the then Maurice Wilkes, later to be Sir Maurice of course.

The 20 page paper is entitled: ‘Programming for a high speed automatic calculating machine’ and was written when Maurice was the Director of the Cambridge University Mathematical Laboratory. The article makes many references to the famous Cambridge Computer EDSAC which he reports is being built at the same time that he writes.

Published in the ‘Journal of Scientific Instruments and of Physics in Industry’ (June 1949), the paper suggests it was written before February 1949. The TNMOC document appears to be one of several copies of his draft paper that have been circulated for comment perhaps, before being sent for publication.

The front page and first two pages are copied here for you to read.

Wilkes comments on the rarity of articles about programming these ‘high speed calculating machines’ and so we have one of the first articles in a long line that focuses on programming. Calling on his experience in the design and construction of EDSAC, which is going on in the Cambridge Labs around him, he also makes reference to two US machines, EDVAC and ENIAC.

The relation Wilkes expresses between the machine (EDSAC) and the ‘computor’ (human) is an interesting one, as the machine ‘executes the orders… one after the other without further intervention on the part of the operator.’

Trying to imagine a world with so few ‘digital machines’ is almost impossible today, but documents such as this paper give us a glimpse into the great minds that were daring to think of such incredible technology and what uses it might be put to.

Together with a large and growing archive of documents at TNMOC, Sir Maurice’s paper will be carefully archived by our volunteer archivist, Brian.

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