The world’s first general purpose computer

The digital age dawns in Manchester

Today, most of us have become fairly blasé about the computing power of even the tiniest handheld devices. But a report in The Engineer from 1951 on the so-called Manchester Electronic Computer is a potent reminder of how far and how fast computer technology has advanced in a relatively short space of time.

Delivered to Manchester University at the beginning of 1951 the room-sized machine, which was also known as the Ferranti Mark 1, was the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.

Running through its specifications, The Engineer wrote: ’It can carry out arithmetical calculations with extreme rapidity, for example it takes only two seconds to do 600 multiplications of pairs of 10-digit decimal numbers, which would require a normal day’s work by a girl with a standard desk calculation machine.’

“It can carry out arithmetical calculations with extreme rapidity”

The Engineer also marvelled at the machine’s ’capacious memory’, which enabled it to store ’16,000 12-digit numbers and recall any one of them within 1/30th of a second’.

The article added that the system was also able to make decisions, ’that is to say, it can decide which of two or more contingencies has occurred and it can determine its future course of operations accordingly’.

Paying tribute to those who laid the groundwork for the modern computer, The Engineer added: ’It is worth recalling that Charles Babbage anticipated by more than 100 years these principles but unfortunately he could not get the necessary financial backing and lacked the facilities provided by electronic devices upon which modern electronic computers depend.’