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By Sarah Baines on

#ManFran

Is it the rain that binds Manchester, UK and San Francisco, USA? Or perhaps the fog? Or the amazing music scene?

One big story for both cities is the impact they’ve had on modern computing technology.

Direct flights between Manchester and San Francisco start this year, and that got me and the team of Computing Volunteers here at the museum ruminating on the parallels between computing in San Francisco, associated with the huge and world-famous Silicon Valley, and Manchester, which is, well… in a valley.

Both Manchester and San Francisco have been pivotal in the development of computer technology for 70 years. While advancements in early computing were being made at break-neck speed on both sides of the Atlantic, certainly some of the most significant advances in early computer storage happened here in Manchester.

In California, the name Silicon Valley was first coined in 1971 to describe the region around the San Francisco Bay area, which was already home to many companies founded to develop and exploit silicon-based transistor circuit technologies. Before it got that name though, it was some of the innovators working with the original germanium transistors who realised that silicon-based transistors would work better, and who founded their own companies to develop their use in the San Francisco Bay area from 1956, including Shockley Semiconductor, and later Fairchild and Intel.

Professors Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn led the team that built the first stored program computer at Manchester University way back in 1948, nicknamed ‘Baby’ (it was new, and ironically it was huge). The implications of this achievement were recognised by the Silicon Valley-based Computer History Museum, when Tom Kilburn was inducted as one of their Fellows in 2000 for his “contributions to early computer design, including random access digital storage, virtual memory and multiprogramming”. Because Tom couldn’t attend the induction ceremony in person, he came in here to the Museum of Science and Industry to record an acceptance speech for his Fellowship in front of the ‘Baby’ replica, and this photograph was taken to commemorate the occasion.

Tom Kilburn with the replica 'Baby' computer at the Museum of Science and Industry, 1 November 2000
Tom Kilburn with the replica ‘Baby’ computer at the Museum of Science and Industry, 1 November 2000

The Williams and Kilburn CRT storage tube became an important technology in the 1950s. Both the Silicon Valley companies and Tom Kilburn’s teams at Manchester University have been involved in key landmarks in the development of transistor-based computers, which have led directly to today’s silicon chip-based computers.

Silicon Valley-based company Diodes Incorporated invested in the technology centre of Greater Manchester, taking over and expanding a chip manufacturing facility at Gem Mill, one of the main manufacturing sites for the Ferranti Mark I and later Ferranti computers in Chadderton, Oldham. Ferranti was the company to develop the ‘Baby’ into the world’s first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark I in 1951. When the original Ferranti building was demolished in 2007 they relocated to a new site in Chadderton, but the company continues to have a silicon wafer foundry facility in Oldham.

One of the Computing Volunteers, Dave, observed that perhaps the most significant parallels between San Francisco and Manchester computing isn’t direct, but in spirit. Silicon Valley technology companies are arguably following on the Manchester tradition of pushing the boundaries of artificial ‘intelligence’ (see my earlier blog post Can You Code Love?). For example, with their self-driving car, and the personal assistant, Google at Mountain View are fulfilling Alan Turing’s vision of computers with real intelligence, and have really started to turn the computer into the ‘universal machine‘ that Turing believed in. Dave put this more succinctly – “I bet if Turing saw the self-driving car he would have said ‘I told you so'”.

This post was written collaboratively with the Museum of Science and Industry Computing Volunteers. Special thanks go to Neil, Tim and Dave.

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