National Museum of Computing honours Sir Maurice Wilkes by revisiting EDSAC machine

By Culture24 Reporter | 27 June 2013

Built in 1947, EDSAC – the world's first general purpose computer – resulted in three Nobel Prizes, the introduction of the first commercial computer and, in Sir Maurice Wilkes, a father figure for British computing.

A photo of lots of small computer cylinders on shelves in different colours
The father of the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator has been honoured in Bletchley© EDSAC Replica Project, edsac.org
A century after his birth, the man who led the design team at the University of Cambridge has been remembered with a demonstration of the first working parts of the recreation of his most successful idea.

Members of Wilkes’ family were in the audience to see the computer’s internal clock in action at the National Museum of Computing, where a volunteer team hopes to complete the full recreation within two years.

“Sir Maurice Wilkes is in the pantheon of computer greats,” said Andrew Herbert, who is leading the EDSAC Replica Project.

“His practical vision was liberating and the impact of his work was profound.

“EDSAC speeded up productivity by a factor in the order of 1,500. Such an advance has never been equalled in a single step before or since.

“To recreate his computer is quite some challenge – to conceive, design and create it from scratch was an achievement of a different order.”

One of Wilkes’ students and future peers at Cambridge during the 1960s, Dr David Hartley, is now the Director of the Museum.

"Sir Maurice was a visionary leader in the early days of computing,” he said.

“In designing EDSAC, he set out to provide a computing service, not just a computing testbed.

“He was very proud of that achievement, but he rarely looked back. He was always moving forward."

Wilkes’ son, Anthony, called his father “a man of great intellect” with “a strong practical streak.”

“If I came to him with a scientific or mathematical problem he would elucidate with effortless simplicity,” he reminisced.

“From an early age my two sisters and I were conscious of computers – in a way, we were one of the first computer-age families."

Short for Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, the finished computer is expected to span 20 square metres with 3,000 electronic tubes and more than 140 shelves.
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