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Ferranti Mark 1 Computer

Ferranti worked in partnership with the University of Manchester to design the Ferranti Mark 1—the world’s first commercially available computer. No complete Mark 1 or Mark 1* computers survive today.

Alan Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark 1 computer. Science Museum, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND.

First steps

Advances in radar and code-breaking equipment during the Second World War provided the platform for the computing developments of the late 1940s.

At Ferranti Limited, the Instrument Department at the Moston factory was facing a post-war fall in government defence contracts. Divisonal Manager Eric Grundy set up a study team to investigate potential uses of computers. In 1947 he appointed Dietrich Prinz as the Computer Development Team Leader.

After a research trip to the USA, Prinz reported back to Grundy that Freddie Williams’ team at the University of Manchester was far ahead of its American counterparts.

Ferranti already had a collaborative relationship with the University of Manchester, having consulted Professor Lawrence Bragg about thermionic valves in the 1930s.

Within 2 months of the successful test run of the University’s Small Scale Experimental Machine (the Baby computer) in June 1948, a full-scale version was under way and Ferranti was investigating commercial production.

However, progress to commercial production was far from certain because of the financial risks.

In October 1948, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Ben Lockspeiser, visited the University of Manchester to see a demonstration of the expanded Baby computer.

See it. See a working replica of the Baby computer in Revolution Manchester.

Impressed, Lockspeiser encouraged the collaboration with Ferranti. 4 months later, he wrote to Ferranti offering a government annual grant of £35,000 for 5 years towards the project.

At the University, meanwhile, Professor Max Newman had been able to divert a Royal Society grant, awarded for a separate computer project, to the creation of a new computer lab for the Williams-Kilburn computer. His first action was to appoint Alan Turing as Deputy Director of the Royal Society Computing Laboratory.

Production and installation

During 1949, the University of Manchester team worked on perfecting the full-scale Manchester Mark 1 computer, nicknamed MAD(A)M (Manchester Automatic Digital Machine).

MAD(A)M served as the prototype for the Ferranti Mark 1. As it progressed, Ferranti engineers looked for ways to refine the design so that it could be reliably engineered. For example, Ferranti substantially re-engineered the magnetic drum to increase its storage capacity to 150,000 words. This refinement process resulted in 42 computer patents.

See it. See a Ferranti Mark 1 logic door in Revolution Manchester.

The official announcement of the Ferranti Mark 1 computer came in August 1950. Over the next 6 months, Alan Turing and his colleague Cicely Popplewell worked on the user interface. They devised the program and data input mechanism and the run-time management system, as well as writing the first user manual. A 5-hole paper-tape reader fed through the input, while a paper-tape punch or teleprinter delivered the output.

The Ferranti Mark 1 was finally completed and installed at the University in February 1951.

After 5 months of commissioning work, its formal inauguration took place on 9 July 1951, with over 150 guests from industry, universities and Government departments. A 3-day conference followed the inauguration.

From Mark 1 to Mark 1*

The Ferranti Mark 1 could carry out 600 10-digit multiplications in 3 seconds—a day’s work using a mechanical calculator. But it was much more than just a huge, fast calculator.

Dietrich Prinz wrote a chess program for the Mark 1—the first computer chess game.

At the University of Manchester, Turing encouraged the Mark 1’s use in areas of research such as morphogenesis (the evolution of an organism’s form) and in more playful experiments such as Christopher Strachey’s program for generating random love letters.

The University also rented out computer time to local firms, allowing companies to see how useful and fast a computer could be. However, sales were slow.

The second Mark 1 was delivered to the University of Toronto in early 1952. Ferranti then made improvements, resulting in the Mark 1*. 7 Mark 1* computers were sold between 1953 and 1957. Continued collaboration with the University resulted in the launch of the Mercury computer in 1957.

By the end of 1959, Ferranti had sold a total of 69 computers over 9 years and had a 26% share of the UK computer market.

Topics: computing, Manchester companies, engineering, communications

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