British computer pioneers and their links

BBC News is running a series of articles about pioneering British computers and computer pioneers.

To find out about the contribution British scientists made to early computer development and how they were linked, click on the project names below.

Computer Pioneers

Edsac/Leo, Cambridge

Edsac at Cambridge

The Edsac machine was designed by Sir Maurice Wilkes and was turned into a working machine with the help of William Renwick and David Wheeler. Leo was a copy of Edsac adapted for use by cake and tea shop giant J Lyons. The company used it to help streamline the business and the project was overseen by John Pinkerton, David Caminer and Frank Land.

NPL Pilot Ace

Pilot Ace at NPL

The Pilot Ace was based on a design by Alan Turing but the creation of this pioneering machine was overseen by Jim Wilkinson and Harry Huskey. Foundational work on packet switching, which underpins the internet, was undertaken by Donald Davies. Roger Scantlebury, Keith Bartlett and Peter Wilkinson were tasked by Derek Barber to build the first network (NPL Network) around those ideas.

Colossus, Bletchley

Colossus at Bletchley Park

Tommy Flowers, an engineer from the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill Post Office, helped Alan Turing decode messages scrambled with the Enigma machine. The design for the Colossus code-cracker was drawn up by Tommy Flowers and turned into a working machine with the help of Allen Coombs, Sid Broadhurst, Bill Chandler and Harry Fensom. The machine was used in a department run by Max Newman, and it capitalised on Bill Tutte's achievement in working out how the German Lorenz enciphering machine scrambled messages.

SSEM/Baby, Manchester

'Baby' at Manchester

Radar was developed at the Telecommunications Research Establishment during wartime and many of the people that worked on it - Freddie Williams, Tom Kilburn, Geoff Tootill and Sir Maurice Wilkes - used the expertise they gained there when they went on to build early computers. Manchester's Small Scale Experimental Machine the SSEM or Baby was the world's first digital stored program computer. It used a data storage system thought up by Freddie Williams and built by Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill. The SSEM became the Mark I with the help of Tommy Thomas, Dai Edwards and Tony Brooker.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

In 1936 Turing published On Computable Numbers, a seminal paper that got many thinking seriously about using machines to tackle mathematical problems. Turing was also a pivotal figure at many of the places where pioneering computers were built and used.

Picture credits: Getty, Computer Laboratory - University of Cambridge, University of Manchester, Bletchley Park Trust, Leo Computers Society and the pioneers themselves

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific