Manchester University has played an important role in the development of computer science. As early as the 1930s Douglas R. Hartree (1897-1958) had constructed a differential analyser, a mechanical calculating machine, based upon the designs of the American engineer, Vannevar Bush. This was an analogue device. After the Second World War these machines were overtaken by electronic stored-program digital computers.
In 1946 Professor (Sir) F.C. Williams (1911-1977) and (Professor) Tom Kilburn (1921-2001) began work at Manchester University with the intention of developing a novel form of computer storage using cathode ray tubes. The system, which involved the use of the "Williams tube" to store "bits" of information, was perfected during 1947, with Kilburn publishing the results, together with the outline design for a hypothetical computer, in December of that year. The team was also joined by G.C. Toothill, who, like Williams and Kilburn, had previously worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern. A prototype machine, (the forerunner of the Manchester Mark I), was built and on 21 June 1948 it became the world's first stored-program computer to operate. The successful running of this first program, recorded Williams, "was the breakthrough and sparks flew in all directions". The Manchester group doubled its size in 1948 by taking on two research students (D.B.G. Edwards and G.E. Thomas). The team was a remarkably talented one: besides Williams and Kilburn, who provided the electrical engineering skills, Professor M.H.A. (Max) Newman (1897-1984) and Alan Turing (the latter having joined the Mathematics Department in 1948), gave theoretical expertise. Turing, for example, designed, with Edwards and Thomas, the paper tape input/output system and wrote a programming manual.
In 1948 the attention of Sir Ben Lockspeiser, the then Government Chief Scientist, was drawn to the Mark I. The result was a Government contract with Ferranti Ltd to make a production version of the machine "to Professor Williams' specification". The first Ferranti Mark I was installed at the University of Manchester in February 1951, thereby becoming the world's first commercially available computer to be delivered. The Government's involvement with the University of Manchester proved worthwhile: royalties from the Williams' patents (the first of which had been filed on 11 December 1946 by the Ministry of Supply) gave an important boost to the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), a Government body, set up to advise on, and support, developments in British industry.
The University's involvement with Ferranti continued into the 1950s when the design team (increasingly headed by Kilburn as Williams' interest turned to other engineering matters) was working on a Mark II computer nicknamed MEG (megacycle engine). Collaboration in these years eventually resulted in the ATLAS computer, an ambitious project that pioneered many concepts in storage and addressing which are in common use today. On its official inauguration on 7 December 1962 it was considered to be the most powerful computer in the world.
Manchester University was not the only centre in Britain or the world involved in pioneering computer technology. Later in the 1960s, developments elsewhere, particularly in the USA, had overtaken Manchester. New computer software as well as new hardware, such as transistors and silicon chips, eroded Manchester University's lead in computers. Nevertheless, it is worth recording that besides building the world's first stored-program computer, as well as the world's first commercially available computer, Kilburn and his group can be credited with building the first proper transistor computer in 1953 (the Metropolitan Vickers Company later built a commercial version of the design). Both in commercial and technical terms the legacy of these vintage years of computing was immense (42 computer patents emanated from Manchester University during 1948-50). And it must not be forgotten that the Computer Science Department itself was involved in pioneering the teaching of a wholly new subject within the British university system. Finally, all these developments established an important link between the University and the computer industry, which has lasted through various projects to the present day.