21 June 2018 – a day to remember two important 70th anniversaries
Today we should celebrate two important 70th anniversaries, both of which are still having an impact on how we apply computers in managing information. The first of these is the Manchester Baby. This was the world’s first stored program computer. ENIAC, designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, was arguably the first general purpose computer when it was announced in 1946. The memory was in effect hard-wired and took several days to reprogram. The Manchester Baby, (the Small Scale Experimental Machine) used vacuum tubes as a random-access memory and re-programming could be accomplished in hours. It ran for the first time on 21 June 1948. This was a very important innovation. It led to the development of the Manchester Mk 1 computer in 1948 and soon afterwards the Ferranti Mk 1, the first commercial computer. The rest, as they say, is history. Although the UK was in the vanguard of computer development for various reasons (predominately financial) it was the United States that quickly assumed the leadership position.
June 21 1948 also the opening day of the Royal Society Scientific Conference, which ran to July 2. This Conference was the direct result of a recommendation made by the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference of 1946 that the Royal Society convene a conference of libraries, societies, and institutions responsible for publishing, abstracting, and information services to examine the possibility of improvement in existing methods of collection, indexing, and distribution of scientific literature, and for the extension of existing abstracting services.
The Conference was dedicated to considering information services from the point of view of the scientific user and was organized in four sections with members of the organizing committee (including J.D Bernal) acting as editors-in-chief of the sections. It embraced all scientific subjects including agricultural sciences, engineering sciences, and medical sciences, but not social sciences. Looking back now the ambition outstretched the available resources and the rapid rise of commercial (rather than scientific institution) publishing. The importance of being able to access the very rapidly increasing volume of scientific information after WW2 was quite quickly seen to be an opportunity to use computer technology, and many of the early developments in search technology and algorithms were funded through the Federal science and defence budgets of the United States.
To me what was striking about these two UK initiatives in 1948 was that they laid the ground work not only for computer technology but also for the way in which information should be curated, classified, stored and retrieved. There will be much celebration of the National Health Service this year but we should also remember these pioneers of computing and information management.