National Archive for the History of Computing: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Cambridge University Computer Laboratory Collection comprises a small body of personal papers, and working parties and publications of Laboratory researchers and staff.

Administrative / Biographical History

Cambridge University Computer Laboratory was founded in 1937 as the Mathematical Laboratory; (the name was changed in 1970). Early work at the Laboratory involved analogue devices, such as the differential analyser. After the Second World War the director of the Computer Laboratory, M.V. Wilkes, headed what was perhaps the most influential of Britain's postwar computer projects the building of the EDSAC. Modelled on the American stored-program concept that Wilkes had heard outlined at the Moore School lectures in August 1946, the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) ran its first calculation in May 1949. The objective of the design team Wilkes, W. Renwick, S. Barton and G. Stevens on the hardware side; and D.J. Wheeler on the programming side was to provide a useful and reliable computing service. Such a service, the first in the world using a stored-program computer, was available from early 1950. A significant feature of the Cambridge approach was the attention paid to user convenience and programming; hence the group's book, The Preparation of Programmes for an Electronic Digital Calculator (1951), became the first text-book on programming a stored-program computer, and was soon regarded as a classic. Hence also, the international computer conference in June 1949 and the regular series of computing seminars that were held at the Laboratory.

Wilkes and the EDSAC group ensured frequent contact amongst British computer groups, besides providing inspiration by their own endeavours. They even made a film on how to use the EDSAC! (Copy in NAHC). On the hardware side, the EDSAC influenced the design of the Lyons LEO through the Laboratory's close informal association with J. Lyons. Developments at the Laboratory continued into the late 1950s, when a new computer, EDSAC II was designed and built. Computer design and development has continued to the present day and involved such major projects as the TITAN.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Manchester University Department of Computer Science; Cambridge University Computer Laboratory. Anthony J.T. Davie (C18-C34)


M.V. Wilkes, Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985).