I started writing this blog about computer science some time ago, however as it would have been Alan Turing’s 100th birthday on the 23rdJune, this seems like an appropriate time to finish it and have it posted to our site. Turing’s work in computer science is well known and in particular his war work, so I hope he (and our lovely readers) will forgive me if I do not go into detail about his achievements (though if you would like to read more, both Phil Trans A and Interface Focus have recently published special issues commemorating Turing, or, if you’re in London, visit the Codebreaker exhibition at the Science Museum).
Before I start I would like to encourage anyone interested in the field to find out more, because one blog post is simply not long enough to do justice to the field of computer science. I would also like to thank my computer scientist friend for suggesting this as topic – it turned out to be more interesting than I had anticipated!
As with other sciences, various people and institutions have been involved in the development of the field and below are just a few select Fellows from the 17th to the 20th century, who have left us with archival material relating to their work in this discipline.
I will begin with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – whilst he did not invent a computer as such he was an early inventor of a calculating machine, though not the first. Many of you will be aware of Leibniz’s work and won’t be surprised to know that we have various papers in our collections relating to him, including letters in which he discusses his calculating machine. Unfortunately these are in Latin, but they are here at the Royal Society so if you want to know more, and have your Latin knowledge at the ready, do please come and have a look.
Jumping forward to the nineteenth century, we come to Charles Babbage whose idea for an analytical engine incorporates many elements that are also seen in modern computers, such as the use of ‘the store’ which we would recognise today under the term ‘memory’. In our collections we have a number of papers where Babbage or his contemporaries refer to this machine.
Babbage never got to complete his engine and the remarkable similarities of Babbage’s work to more modern developments were only discovered during the twentieth century and once electronic computers had already been successfully built. The picture below is a plan of Babbage’s calculating engine which Babbage had worked on before his more ambitious analytical engine.
Finally we reach the twentieth century. As you would expect there were many more people working in computing by now so I’ve decided to focus on the work of one of our Fellows, Maurice Wilkes. Professor Wilkes built up a lengthy list of achievements but the one that stands out to me is that he is credited with constructing the first operational machine that could store programmes alongside data, known as the electronic delay storage automatic calculator (ESDAC), a name which will undoubtedly mean more to some people than others.
These developments were not done in isolation and computer scientists worked on similar projects at the University of Manchester and of course work was also being done internationally. Alongside Wilkes’ election certificate and portrait, we have a recording of Wilkes’ Clifford Patterson Lecture, delivered in 1990, entitled ‘Progress and research in the computer industry’.