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About A Week: The Great Tom Kilburn

Peter Hinchliffe tells of his own very tenuous link with the man who developed the modern computer.

Maths homework was a nightmare. If a plus b equals c, and c is the square root of dÖ

After wrestling for an hour with algebraic equations I began to wish that a, b, c and d had never been invented.

A sad wish for a lad whose working life would be entirely dependent on a, b, c, d and the other 22 letters of the alphabet to earn a living as a journalist.

What I needed way back then was access to HPCx, a supercomputer in a laboratory in Warrington, Cheshire.

The machine has enough electronic brain power to complete a full yearís maths homework and classwork for every child in Britain in one fifth of a second.

HPCx can handle 3.5 trillion number-crunching operations a second - and thatís a number far too immense for one small human brain to comprehend.

Nowadays we take computers and their magical calculating tricks for granted. There are computers in cars, ship and planes. Computers in banks, offices and homes.

But did you know that the modern computer age was born aboard trains which trundled daily through my home, Huddersfield in Yorkshire?

Tom Kilburn, the human spark which fired the computer revolution, travelled daily by steam train between Dewsbury and Manchester. He used the journey time to design Baby, the first modern computer.

Quite a thought, eh! The industrial revolution was born in valleys around our home town.

So too was the computer revolution!

Tom Kilburn grew up in Earlsheaton and was educated at Dewsbury Wheelwright Grammar School. Headmaster Mr Leslie Sadler, himself a mathematician, spotted Tomís talent and fast-tracked him to a Cambridge scholarship and first-class honours degrees.

During World War Two Tom worked with Freddie Williams on telecommunications research. They were re-united in peacetime when Freddie - later Sir Freddie - became head of electronics at Manchester University.

They worked together on designing a computer - and what a heavyweight of a Baby resulted from their strenuous brainwork.

It had a memory store of 32 words, 650 valves, was 16ft long and weighed half a tonne.

Baby worked for the first time on June 21, 1948.

Research is going on right now here in Huddersfield to produce a new generation of computers that could work at the speed of light. Huddersfield University scientists are exploring ways of using yeast to produce a new kind of computer chip.

The aim is to convert yeast into tiny particles of cadmium sulphide, which is a semi-conductor. These particles could be used in microchips which would compute using light rather than electricity.

Tom Kilburn, who died five years ago, never earned vast amounts of money for his invention. He married a Dewsbury lass who he met at Highfield Congregational Church youth club. They lived quietly for many years in the Manchester area.

I too was a Dewsbury Wheelwright lad. I was a pupil at the school 15 years after Tom, though Mr Sadler was still headmaster.

A wise man, Mr Sadler. All to aware of my inability to make firm friends of algebra and geometry. I am sure he endorsed my decision to juggle words, leaving mathematical calculations to other brains, be they human or electronic.

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