by David Tebbutt

Book review – Cambridge Computing: The First 75 Years

Jul 18, 20133 mins
IT Strategy

If you’re looking for stories about Sinclair Research or Xerox EuroPARC, then you’ve come to the wrong book. This one is firmly centred on the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory and its impact on the outside world.

It’s a highly illustrated ‘coffee table’ book, a treasure trove of stories which throw a light on our IT history, albeit from a Cambridge-centric perspective. As someone who started (machine code) programming in 1966, this book set my own IT life in context and made me realise how fortunate I was to join the industry at such an interesting time.

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are given due credit, despite the fact that their ideas languished for 100 years until Maurice Wilkes founder and head of the computing facility at Cambridge rediscovered them in May 1949. However, four days later, he was somewhat distracted when his own team’s creation, the EDSAC computer, went live on May 6. It took him a further 20 years before he revisited their work.

For many years, information flowed fairly freely between researchers in the USA and the UK and lots of cross-fertilisation happened. No-one seemed to mind – intellectual property rights were unheard of at that time. It would seem that information about the American’s EDVAC computer influenced the Cambridge team’s work and, no doubt, the opposite would be the case. In the event, the Cambridge machine went live in May 1949, handing the Cambridge laboratory the first of its many firsts. (EDVAC went live just one month later.)

A couple of the book’s assertions jarred slightly. It claimed that, in 1966, BCPL was “the first successful portable programming language.” COBOL predated this by six years, but it only worked on two machines at first but became standardised in 1968. Another is, “Computers only became available from commercial suppliers in the mid-60s.” Well, 1951 saw the Ferranti Mark I and the Univac I. Leo II was first installed in May 1958. These were all commercially available machines.

Despite some of its own inventions being clearly superior to those in the outside world, the Laboratory was occasionally obliged to toe the industry line. It bought an IBM mainframe (despite the government’s strong urging to buy British) and it had to accept that Ethernet had prevailed in global communications.

The book covers the entire 75 years showing how Cambridge inventiveness lies at the heart of many success stories. None, probably, bigger than ARM – a Goliath of the processor world. The laboratory’s research covers almost 40 primary topics including natural language, networking, 3D graphics, social networks, security, resilience and intelligent user interfaces.

Andy Hopper, head of the Laboratory since 2004, has had masses of successful real world experience and a close association with the laboratory for most of the past 35 years. His department continually looks at the way the world will change and how computing can support this change for our collective well-being.

Cambridge Computing: The First 75 Years, by Haroon Ahmed, is published by Third Millennium Information