The nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

IT ISN’T often I write in this column about things of a scientific nature, but sometimes I feel I have to if I want to shine a light on the many brilliant scientists from Dewsbury who have helped changed the world.

My last two articles have been about Leslie Fox, a brilliant mathematician who set up Oxford University’s first computing laboratory and became Oxford’s first Professor of Numerical Analysis.

True Trailblazer: Tom Kilburn is pictured at Deswbury library with Government minister Chris Smith, who was the culture secretary at this time.

True Trailblazer: Tom Kilburn is pictured at Deswbury library with Government minister Chris Smith, who was the culture secretary at this time.

This week I am writing about computer genius Tom Kilburn, who co-invented the world’s first ever stored-program computer and became Britain’s first professor of Computer Science.

Both men were born and raised in Dewsbury and attended Wheelwright Grammar School, Dewsbury.

I have written about Tom’s life in the past, but because of lack of space have never explained in depth how he achieved what he did.

This week I hope to rectify this by explaining in more detail just how it all began and the crucial role he played in helping to create what the world’s first modern computer.

Tom was born in Earlsheaton in 1921, later moving to Moorlands Avenue, Dewsbury, and attending Carlton Road Primary School where he won a scholarship to Wheelwright at the age of 10.

He gained the equivalent of A-level maths at the age of 14, and later won a scholarship to Cambridge University, graduating with a First in Maths, and later gaining a doctorate.

While at Cambridge he attended a lecture by C P Snow, who said there was something incredibly useful students could do for the war effort, but in order to prepare for it they should take a course in electronics and join the Home Guard. This Tom did.

On completing his degree, he took a crash City and Guilds course in electricity, magnetism and electronics.

When he was eventually called up in 1942 at the age of 21, he was posted to the Government’s Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) billeted at Malvern.

It was here that he met his co-inventor of the digital computer, Freddie Williams, who was leading a small war-time research team with responsibility for solving problems in existing electronic circuitry in radar and other key areas.

After the war, while still at Malvern, Williams and Kilburn realised that the lack of a suitable storage mechanism was holding up development of electronic computers worldwide.

They began to investigate the possibility of an electronic storage system using cathode ray tubes (CRT) and, in 1946 when Williams went to Manchester University as Professor of Electro-technics, he seconded Kilburn to work with him in what was to prove a crucial partnership.

By this time Tom was married to Dewsbury girl Irene Marsden and living with his parents, John and Ivy Kilburn, in Moorlands Avenue.

Tom and Irene couldn’t afford to buy their own house, and so Tom had to travel daily to Manchester by train from Wellington Road Station.

It was while travelling from Dewsbury across the Pennines that he wrote the world’s first program to be stored digitally within the computer.

At last, a computer had finally been built that could hold a user program digitally in an electronic memory and process it at electronic speeds. The breakthrough came on 21 June 1948. Professor Williams (later to be Sir Freddie) would describe this historic moment in the following words:

“A program was laboriously inserted and the start switch pressed. Immediately the spots on the display tube entered a mad dance. In early trials it was a dance of death leading to no useful result, and what was worse, without yielding any clue as to what was wrong. But one day it stopped, and there, shining brightly in the expected place, was the expected answer.

“It was a moment to remember. Nothing was ever the same again.”

The news that the Manchester team, led by Tom, had won the race to design and build a stored-program computer was relayed to the world. It was an enormous breakthrough but, surprisingly, there was little media interest and certainly no public interest.

Kilburn believed their invention would only be significant in the worlds of science, engineering and mathematics.

How wrong he was.

Their first computer, which weighed almost a ton and took up the best part of a large room, was known as Baby. It was the first machine that had all the components now regarded as characteristic of a basic digital computer.

Tom Kilburn, assisted by Geoff Tootill (also seconded from Malvern) rapidly enhanced the Baby and, within months, Ferranti Ltd, at the behest of the Government, had agreed to build a production version to the instructions of Williams and Kilburn.

In 1951 they were able to deliver the world’s first commercial computer – the Ferranti Mark 1. From 1956 to 1962, Kilburn and his team aimed to develop a machine capable of processing a million instructions per second, which Tom was determined could be done. He was right.

In 1958, Ferranti agreed to back this Atlas project, and in 1962, it ran successfully. Kilburn expressed his satisfaction with typical understatement – “Well, that’s another problem solved”.

The importance of the work done by Kilburn and Williams in the early days was immediately recognised by Alan Turing, the gifted mathematician and leading code-breaker at Bletchley Park during World War II.

He sent programs to use on the machine and, largely because Baby existed, he accepted a post in the Mathematics Department at Manchester and started developing software for the machine.

Kilburn stayed on to found Manchester University’s Department of Computer Science and became the first ever Professor of Computer Science in the United Kingdom. His department also became the first in the country to offer a computer science degree.

When Tom retired in 1981, he left behind a flourishing department with about 30 academic staff enrolling about 100 students a year on its undergraduate degree course. A building at the university is named after him.

Tom was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1965, awarded its Royal Medal in 1978, became a CBE in 1973, and was honoured by being made a Fellow of the American-based Computer History Centre.

In three decades, Tom Kilburn CBE saw the computer born and its power multiply by a factor of 50,000.

Tom, who died in 2001 aged 79, was described by his friend and colleague, the late Professor Hilary J Kahn, as a true Yorkshireman, down to earth and very determined, who was also kind and considerate, a true gentleman.

The schools both Tom and Leslie Fox attended had a great influence on both of them, especially Wheelwright, a school which put Dewsbury on the map as a source of mathematicians.

For its size, the school probably had better results than any other grammar school in the country, but more of that in future articles.

Next week I will be writing another article about Tom and his life in Dewsbury, a town for which he always held a deep affection.

If there are any Dewsbury people who still remember Tom and would like to share their memories of him please email me at tresham3@gmail.com.

I would particularly like to hear from any of the family of Tom’s wife, Irene Marsden, who lived in Dewsbury Moor.