National Archive for the History of Computing: National Physical Laboratory Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

National Physical Laboratory Collection comprises:

  • NAHC/NPL/A: Historical Papers, 1979;
  • NAHC/NPL/C: Working Papers and Reports, 1947-1966;
  • NAHC/NPL/D: Publications, 1954-1965;
  • NAHC/NPL/Add.MS: Data Communications at the National Physical Laboratory, 1965-1977.

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1945 a Mathematics Division was established in the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at Teddington, in order to coordinate facilities and techniques relating to machine aided computation. As regards building a stored-program computer, the NPL received most of its impetus from the disbanded COLOSSUS team from Bletchley Park, particularly Dr Alan Turing. In 1946 Turing presented to the Executive Committee of the NPL a complete design for a universal computer an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). The proposal was accepted by the NPL director, Sir Charles Darwin, who probably thought of the ACE project in terms of a single national effort. The fragmentation of British technical personnel and resources after the Second World War, however, meant that this dream was never realised. Eventually a successful version of Turing's machine (the Pilot ACE) was built, which became the progenitor of the English Electric DEUCE; but by then a disillusioned Turing had left the NPL (leaving J.H. Wilkinson and E.A. Newman in charge), and his complicated instruction format ensured that his machine's influence was limited. Turing's design for the ACE, however, has its admirers.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Manchester University Department of Computer Science, courtesy of Professor D.B.G. Edwards. Material collected by Professor Simon Lavington. The additional material (NAHC/NPL/Add.MS) was donated by Dr Martin Campbell-Kelly.

Related Material

The National Archives holds records of the National Physical Laboratory within the records created or inherited by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (ref.: GB 0066 DSIR) and within the records of the Meteorological Office (ref.: GB 0066 BJ 1). The Science Museum Library holds records of the NPL, 1945-70. Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, holds papers of G.B.B. Sutherland, Director of the NPL, 1951-64 (ref: GB 0012 CSAC89/7/82). See also other NAHC records (refs: GB0133 NAHC/TUR  and GB0133 NAHC/MUC ).

Bibliography

Martin Campbell-Kelly, Programming the Pilot ACE: Early Programming Activity at the National Physical Laboratory, Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 3 (1981)

B.E. Carpenter and R.W. Doran, A.M. Turing's ACE Report of 1946 and Other Papers (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986).