Moving on to Manchester

Welcome, friends of the blog and beyond

It’s been a busy week since the beginning of our midterm break. After returning to Cambridge for a couple of days, the group packed up and prepared for another excursion. The destination this time: Manchester.

The welcome sign for the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry

Our first stop was to the Science and Industry museum where we were able to see several important artifacts from computing history. One of the main attractions was the Manchester Baby: the first electronic stored-program computer built by engineers and scientists at the University of Manchester in 1948. Although we had heard the Baby described as “small and primitive” for its time, the machine appeared to be anything but by modern standards. I was fairly impressed by the hunk of metal, which totes more than 500 vacuum tubes and a cathode ray tube display, one of the first of its time. Still, the Baby had a great influence on the design of experimental and consumer computers in the following decades.

The Manchester Baby in all its glory

The Baby’s predecessor, the Manchester Mark I, was developed with the help of one of computer science’s most famous innovators, Alan Turing. After his pivotal code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the war, Turing settled in Manchester where he continued to design a number of computer systems and theorize about the capabilities of machine intelligence (which lead to the description of the Turing Test) among other things. Our tour group was lucky enough to meet Johnathan Swintor, author “Alan Turing’s Manchester,” who gave a talk on Turing’s later life and work, including his work in theoretical biology.

Sadly, the story of Alan Turing’s time in Manchester is incomplete without mentioning his conviction for gross indecency that resulted from the discovery of his homosexual relationship with a Manchester man. Following the conviction, Turing was stripped of his government clearance at the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, and subjected to harsh hormone therapy; which lead Turing to take his own life in late 1954. Turing was not pardoned for his harmless “crime” until December 2013, when Turing would have been 101. While it’s remarkable to witness the technological evolution from early computers, it’s also important to acknowledge the lacking developments in gender and sexual inclusivity in computer science.

the manual for the Ferranti I commercial computer with a picture including Alan Turing (far right)

If somehow the Manchester Baby and the works of Alan Turing weren’t applicable enough to the history of computing, Manchester also offers an even older artifact of computer history and design: the Jacquard Loom. The Jacquard Loom could produce textiles based on a series of punch cards, each of which described the combination of interlacing strings in an individual used to produce a larger pattern on the textile. Some of the earliest computer systems adopted the idea of punch card programming. At the Science and Industry Museum, we got to see a Jacquard loom in action as it produced a picture of Museum’s exterior.

The next day we visited a textile mill in Macclesfield, a town just outside of Manchester, where we were able to get even more hands-on with the Jacquard loom. We were able to see the silk textile production process from start to finish, look at jacquard loom punch cards for different designs, and even operate a manual jacquard loom. It was a great practical exercise to apply the ideas of computer programming and early computer history that we touched on in class.

Jacquard loom on display at the Science and Industry Museum
The mill floor at the Paradise Mill in Macclesfeild
Ribbon tags for Doc Martens produced by a Jacquard loom in the Silk Museum

Manchester was a great place to explore some of the artifacts that we’ve explored in our coursework. I look forward to learning more about early computer artifacts like the ones we got to see in Manchester.

Moving on to Manchester

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