Bringing up Baby: establishing and promoting computers in Manchester

Dame Mary Archer & Dr James Sumner
21st June 2018, 6:00pm

We are happy to announce that the Manchester Lecture will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday 21 June 2018 at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). This year it is in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the creation of the world's first stored-program computer on 21 June 1948 at the University of Manchester. The computer is known as 'The Baby' and a replica of it is located at MSI.


At 7 p.m., there will be a 15-minute talk by Dame Mary Archer DBE (Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group which includes MSI) titled 'From Babbage to the "Baby": the Science Museum Group's Computer Collection'

The Lecture, to be delivered by Dr James Sumner from the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester, is entitled 'Bringing up Baby: establishing and promoting computers in Manchester'.  

The Museum of Science and Industry Computing Volunteers will be running the replica machine in the afternoon between 2 and 4 p.m. and also between 6 and 7 p.m. Additionally, Professor Jim Miles from the University of Manchester and some of his students will be demonstrating modern day computing in the afternoon.

Bringing up Baby: establishing and promoting computers in Manchester

The prototype stored-program computer of 1948 was the first in a series of ‘firsts’ which built Manchester’s reputation as one of the iconic sites of computing innovation. Academic-industrial collaboration in the city produced the first computer in the world to be offered for sale commercially, followed by important milestones in automatic coding, the use of transistors, and supercomputing. It was also, of course, where Alan Turing spent the final years of his short and astonishing life, pondering the possibility of machine intelligence and how computers might solve problems in other areas of science.

Manchester had an equally foundational role in bringing the new technology, initially known only to a handful of experts, firmly into everyday life. Vivian Bowden of the engineering firm Ferranti – who was, he realised later, effectively the first computer salesman in the world – was particularly influential in crafting definitions of the nature, purpose and origins of computers that would make sense to commercial buyers and general audiences. The 1960s saw Manchester chosen as the home of the National Computing Centre, providing advice and training to help British business computerise. And in the 1980s, as computers arrived in ordinary homes, the wider North West was – for an all too brief moment – the focus of policymakers’ hopes for an information technology “sunrise” that would correct the problems of post-industrial decline.

The 1998 celebrations marking the original computer’s golden anniversary were themselves a key contribution to the story of computing in Manchester, articulating a revived confidence about the city’s importance to the wider world, and predicting a bright future at the cutting edge of global research. Although this vision did not, as ever, emerge exactly as advertised, Manchester today retails a vigorous IT sector and distinctive research strengths in fields such as processor design, neural simulation and text mining.

This lecture will give a necessarily brief and impressionistic overview of Manchester’s wide-ranging computing experience in the past seven decades, aimed at non-specialists. We will consider how far the distinctive achievements of Manchester computing have depended on the distinctive knowledge culture of the city itself, with its strong industrial base; and how far local identity can assert itself through one of the defining globally standardised technologies of our age. 

About Dr James Sumner

James Sumner is Senior Lecturer in the History of Technology at the University of Manchester. His research ranges widely across the histories of applied science and technology, including computing and IT, technical education, industrial science, and the history and heritage of Manchester and its universities. He has a strong interest in public engagement, and collaborates regularly on research supervision and public activities with colleagues at the Museum of Science and Industry and its partner organisations in the national Science Museum Group. 

What is the Manchester Lecture?

In 1988, the Society embarked upon an ambitious venture - to hold a prestigious annual lecture, the subject matter of which should reflect the achievements, concerns and opportunities of modern Manchester and its immediate region. The first lecture was given by the Rt Hon Lord Barnett PC on 15th June 1988, followed on 17th May 1989 by Michael Heseltine. The themes addressed were The Revival of the North West and The North West in the 1990s. On 25th June 1990, HRH the Princess Royal addressed the Society in Manchester Town Hall, with particular reference to aspects of Manchester’s Olympic Games bid. These first three lectures were held in conjunction with BBC North West and were televised. 
Since the first high-profile Manchester Lectures, the lecture took place a further five times before becoming instituted again as an annual event that was to coincide with The Manchester Day parade, launched in 2010. The Lit & Phil have hosted speakers including the ambassadors for the US and China as well as Cherie Blair. Last year's Manchester Lecture was given by Adam Jupp on the development of Manchester Airport and the opportunities it presents to Manchester and the wider region.


For those who have either paid for food or are an invited guest of the Society, please make your food choices using the form here.


5.30 p.m. - 7 p.m. – café area at MSI will be open for teas and coffees

6 p.m. - 7 p.m. – the replica of the Baby will be demonstrated (drop-in)

6 p.m. - 7 p.m. – food will be served for those who have booked and paid for it. There will also be a pop-up bar during this time for everyone to use. Due to the buffet nature of the food, you will still have time to eat and view the demonstration of the replica.

7 p.m. – lectures by Dame Mary Archer and Dr James Sumner start.