Dr Link's art installation reconstructs a 1951 Ferranti computer running recovered software to generate automated 'love letters'

Software 'could rewrite computer history'

Rebuilds of early computers will prove 1950s British software engineers were first to create applications in certain disciplines.

Artist and computing historian Dr David Link received the technology conservation prize for his gallery installation ‘LoveLetters’, based on a replica of a 1951 Ferranti computer with reconstructed software that generates texts to express and arouse emotions.

Link believes that the history of computing will have to be revised if surviving early programs developed by pioneering software engineers for the Ferranti machines, and their close successors, can be made to run again on reconstructed hardware.

University of Manchester engineers, headed by Frederic Williams and in co-operation with mathematician codebreakers Alan Turing and Max Newman, prototyped the first fully-electronic, universal software-controlled computer – the Manchester ‘Baby’ – in 1948.

The machine was later extended, and in 1951 Ferranti produced an industrial version, the Ferranti 1.

“Up to its dismantling in 1958, numerous scientists employed these first fully-electronic computers in their research in disciplines such as biology, chemistry, engineering, informatics, meteorology, quantum- and nuclear physics, and X-ray crystallography,” Dr Link explains. 

“Their usages of the machine are essential in the sense that they would not have developed as fast, and in the same way, without the Ferrantis’ calculational support. Indeed, most of them would have been simply impossible without that calculational support.”

The results of this computerised research was made available to expert audiences via article publication, but the computer programs that had generated those results circulated informally at most, and were often lost historically.

Dr Link says: “Just a few years later, the machines themselves were taken down and disassembled into their components, which were then re-used in other projects”.

Some of the Ferranti code has been sitting in archives like the Bodleian Library in Oxford, unexamined for 60 years, and was not documented to the extent that we can fully understand how it performed when it was originally run.

Adds Dr Link: “In other cases we have some documentation about programs that have not survived. Most of the engineers who were involved, and might be able to cast light on the software’s purposes, have now sadly passed away.”

He continues, “Some histories assume that software for scientific and business applications was first developed by the big commercial computer giants of the later mainframe era – but that is not entirely the case. 

"My discoveries lend support to the suggestion that pioneering software engineers connected to Manchester University’s computing department [such as programming language designer Christopher Strachey] were arguably the ‘first to market’ with customised programs. 

"But we need more rebuilds so that we can validate these claims with standard scientific rigour.”

Link cites the example of Joseph Weizenbaum’s natural language processing program ‘Eliza’ (1967), as compared to Christopher Strachey’s ‘LoveLetters’ algorithm, which appeared some 13-years earlier in 1952 (and which inspired Link’s award-winning Tony Sale Award entry).

Strachey had used the built-in random generator of the Ferranti Mark 1 to generate text that is intended to express and arouse emotions.

Dr Link’s current research focuses on the development of methodologies for an Archaeology of Algorithmic Artefacts.

His project ‘Write Current’ aims at localising and restoring all remaining known Ferranti 1 software, and to execute the programs again, to comprehend the beginnings of calculation by ‘universal machines’ of the 1950s, and its subsequent migration into different scientific disciplines.

The Tony Sale Award, managed by the Computer Conservation Society and sponsored by Google, was established to recognise achievements in the growing area of computer conservation. 

Electronic engineer, computer programmer and hardware engineer Tony Sale, who died in August 2011, is probably best-known for leading the team that rebuilt the Colossus computer at Bletchley Park and co-founding the National Museum of Computing at the former wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS).

The ‘LoveLetters’ installation will next be exhibited at the Heinz Nixdorf Forum, Paderborn, Germany, from 24 October to 18 November 2012 (www.hnf.de); then at the Microwave International Media Art Festival, Hong Kong, from 3 to 25 November 2012

Further information:

Ferranti art installation wins first Tony Sale Award

Computing in Queen Elizabeth's ascendancy year

Turing Test 2012: friend or faux

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