An Austrian star of European computing

Google started as a graduate school project. So it’s apt that the next film in our computing heritage series pays homage to the work of another student team, nearly 60 years ago in Austria.

In the mid 1950’s, computer design was in the midst of a major transition, going from vacuum tubes to transistors. Transistors performed a similar function electronically, but generated less heat and were a fraction of the size, allowing machines to be made that were both smaller and more powerful.

Heinz Zemanek, then an assistant professor at the Vienna University of Technology, had long been interested in computers. In 1956, he enlisted a team of students to build one based on this new transistor technology.

Zemanek’s project didn’t have university backing, so the team relied on donations. One student’s work was sponsored by Konrad Zuse, the German computer pioneer, on the understanding he would join Zuse’s company after completing his doctorate. Additional money came from an Austrian bankers association, thanks to connections Zemanek had made through his role leading Austria’s Boy Scouts. Overall more than 35 companies contributed materials, in particular Philips, who donated all the transistors and diodes. The only drawback was the transistors were relatively slow, originally designed for hearing aids.

At the time, leading U.S. machines were named after types of wind, such as MIT’s Whirlwind and RCA Laboratory’s Typhoon. In a gentle nod to this, Zemanek nicknamed his computer Mailüfterl, meaning “May Breeze.” As he joked (PDF): "We are not going to produce… any of those big American storms, but we will have a very nice little Viennese spring breeze!”

On May 27, 1958 the Mailüfterl ran its first calculation and became mainland Europe’s first fully transistorized computer—and one of the earliest in the world. It remained at the university for its first few years, financed in part by the European Research Office of the American Army. In 1960 Zemanek signed a contract with IBM, and in September 1961 the Mailüfterl was moved to a new research laboratory in Vienna that IBM created for Zemanek and his team.

Today the Mailüfterl is on display at the Technical Museum in Vienna—a fitting reminder of Austria’s time at the vanguard of European computing.

“You’ve come a long way, Baby”: remembering the world’s first stored program computer

Sixty-five years ago today, the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine—nicknamed “Baby”—became the earliest computer in the world to run a program electronically stored in its memory. This was a flagship moment: the first implementation of the stored program concept that underpins modern computing.

Earlier computers had their instructions hardwired into their physical design or held externally on punched paper tape or cards. Reprogramming them to do a different task entailed internal rewiring or altering the physical storage media. The Baby marked a new computing era, described by some as the “birth of software,” in which swapping programs was far simpler—requiring only an update to the electronic memory. Both instructions and data were held in the Baby’s memory and the contents could be altered automatically at electronic speeds during the course of computation.

Developed at Manchester University by “Freddie” Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, in size the Baby was anything but: more than 5m long and weighing a tonne (PDF). Its moniker was due to its role as a testbed for the experimental Williams-Kilburn tube, a means of storing binary digits (“bits”) using a cathode ray tube. This was a big deal because up until this point, computers had no cost-effective means of storing and flexibly accessing information in electronic form.

In technical terms, the Williams-Kilburn tube was the earliest form of random access memory, or RAM. The Baby’s memory consisted of one of these tubes, able to store up to 1,024 bits—equivalent to just 128 bytes. In contrast, the average computer today has RAM in multiples of gigabytes, more than a billion times bigger.

The Baby was only ever intended to be a proof-of-concept rather than to serve as a useful calculation tool. So once it had shown the new memory was reliable, attention shifted to building a more powerful and practical machine using the same concepts. This resulted in the Manchester Mark 1, which in turn was the model for the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first computer to be sold commercially, in February 1951.

While today nothing remains of the original Baby, a working replica is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. It’s well worth a visit to reflect on just how far computing has come.

Remembering WEIZAC: the beginning of computing in Israel

Israel is now one of the world’s tech powerhouses, second only to Silicon Valley as a hub for startups, but it wasn’t always this way. Today, in honour of the 84th birthday of Professor Aviezri Fraenkel, we’re delighted to share a short film sharing his story of working on the WEIZAC, Israel’s first computer.

Short film produced with support from Google as part of our ongoing computing heritage series

The impetus to build a computer in Israel came from Professor Chaim Pekeris, an MIT-trained geophysicist and mathematician, who made it a condition of accepting a job at the then-fledgling Weizmann Institute. An illustrious committee was set up to consider Pekeris’s request and initially opinion was divided. In particular, Albert Einstein was skeptical a computer in Israel would receive sufficient use and queried whether the skilled resources to build it were available. It took much convincing by another committee member, mathematician and computing luminary John Von Neumann, before the project got the go-ahead.

Construction of the WEIZAC (“Weizmann Automatic Calculator”) got underway in late 1953 under the leadership of Professor Pekeris and Jerry Estrin. A protege of Von Neumann, Estrin arrived in Israel armed with design drawings based on the computer at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. After advertising for recruits, a small team of engineers and technicians was assembled, among them Aviezri Fraenkel.

It took the team a lot of ingenuity to source the necessary materials. Some were imported, but others were clever adaptations, such as the thin copper strips that came from a small local bicycle-part shop! Despite such hurdles, progress was steady, and the major components were in place by the time Estrin returned to the U.S. 15 months later.

The WEIZAC performed its first calculation in October 1955 and was soon much in demand by Israeli scientists. It remained operational until the end of 1963—50 years ago this year. Nowadays it resides in the Weizmann Institute’s Ziskind Building as a fitting memorial to where computing in Israel began.

I have fond memories of passing by the WEIZAC every day when I studied at the Weizmann Institute, where I also had the privilege to attend a class by Professor Fraenkel. With the release of this short film, I’m delighted to be learning more from him about such an important chapter in Israel’s tech history.

Marking a cultural shift in computing with EDSAC

Computing’s early days are full of stories about great technical leaps forward.  But sometimes what matters most isn’t a shift in technology so much as a change in the way it is used.  The “Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator” (EDSAC)—64 years old today—is a stellar example.

Entry from log book marking the first day that EDSAC was in operation: “May 6th 1949.  Machine in operation for first time. Printed a table of squares (0-99), time for programme 2 mins, 35 sec. Four tanks of battery 1 in operation”. Reproduced with kind permission of Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge

EDSAC is noteworthy for marking the transition from “test to tool” in civilian computing.  Maurice Wilkes, EDSAC’s designer, sought to build a multi-purpose, reliable workhorse that would bring unrivalled calculating power to University of Cambridge researchers.  His aim wasn’t to be at the cutting edge of engineering; rather to be at the forefront of delivering a computer-powered general calculation service.  Above all else, Wilkes wanted EDSAC to be a practical computer, useful and accessible to a wide range of researchers.   

Short film celebrating the work of EDSAC’s team, led by Maurice Wilkes, produced by Google

In May 1949 EDSAC became the world’s first general purpose stored program computer to enter regular service, transforming scientific research at the University of Cambridge by making it possible to speedily tackle analyses of previously impractical scale, across disciplines as varied as astronomy, economics, biology and more.

But EDSAC’s legacy stretches far further. Subroutines—a central tenet of programming today—were invented by David Wheeler to make it easier to program EDSAC by re-using lines of existing code. The world’s first computer science diploma had EDSAC as its foundation. The world’s first business computer was built with EDSAC as a prototype.

Sadly, little remains physically of EDSAC today. That’s why a team of U.K. volunteers have embarked on an ambitious project to construct a working replica of the original EDSAC, in partnership with The National Museum of Computing. We’re delighted to support the EDSAC Rebuild Project, and we look forward to welcoming it back to regular service—as a reminder of the U.K.’s illustrious computing past.

Sharing stories of Bletchley Park: home of the code-breakers

For decades, the World War II codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park was one of the U.K.’s most closely guarded secrets. Today, it’s a poignant place to visit and reflect on the achievements of those who worked there. Their outstanding feats of intellect, coupled with breakthrough engineering and dogged determination, were crucial to the Allied victory—and in parallel, helped kickstart the computing age.

We’ve long been keen to help preserve and promote the importance of Bletchley Park. Today we’re announcing two new initiatives that we hope will bring its story to a wider online audience.

First, we’re welcoming the Bletchley Park Trust as the latest partner to join Google’s Cultural Institute. Their digital exhibit features material from Bletchley’s archives, providing a vivid snapshot of the work that went on cracking secret messages and the role this played in shortening the war. Included are images of the Bombe machines that helped crack the Enigma code; and of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, used to crack the German High Command code—including this message showing the Germans had been successfully duped about the location for the D-Day invasion.

Second, as a followup to our film about Colossus, we’re pleased to share a personal story of the Bombe, as told by one of its original operators, Jean Valentine. Women like Jean made up the majority of Bletchley Park’s personnel—ranging from cryptographers, to machine operators, to clerks. In her role operating the Bombe, Jean directly helped to decipher messages encoded by Enigma. In this film Jean gives us a firsthand account of life at Bletchley Park during the war, and demonstrates how the Bombe worked using a replica machine now on show at the museum.

We hope you enjoy learning more about Bletchley Park and its fundamental wartime role and legacy. For more glimpses of history, explore the Cultural Institute’s other exhibitions on

Marking the birth of the modern-day Internet

Today is the 30th birthday of the modern-day Internet. Five years ago we marked the occasion with a doodle. This year we invited Vint Cerf to tell the story. Vint is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet for his contributions to shaping the Internet’s architecture, including co-designing the TCP/IP protocol. Today he works with Google to promote and protect the Internet. -Ed.

A long time ago, my colleagues and I became part of a great adventure, teamed with a small band of scientists and technologists in the U.S. and elsewhere. For me, it began in 1969, when the potential of packet switching communication was operationally tested in the grand ARPANET experiment by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Other kinds of packet switched networks were also pioneered by DARPA, including mobile packet radio and packet satellite, but there was a big problem. There was no common language. Each network had its own communications protocol using different conventions and formatting standards to send and receive packets, so there was no way to transmit anything between networks.

In an attempt to solve this, Robert Kahn and I developed a new computer communication protocol designed specifically to support connection among different packet-switched networks. We called it TCP, short for “Transmission Control Protocol,” and in 1974 we published a paper about it in IEEE Transactions on Communications: “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication.” Later, to better handle the transmission of real-time data, including voice, we split TCP into two parts, one of which we called “Internet Protocol,” or IP for short. The two protocols combined were nicknamed TCP/IP.

TCP/IP was tested across the three types of networks developed by DARPA, and eventually was anointed as their new standard. In 1981, Jon Postel published a transition plan to migrate the 400 hosts of the ARPANET from the older NCP protocol to TCP/IP, including a deadline of January 1, 1983, after which point all hosts not switched would be cut off.

From left to right: Vint Cerf in 1973, Robert Kahn in the 1970’s, Jon Postel

When the day came, it’s fair to say the main emotion was relief, especially amongst those system administrators racing against the clock. There were no grand celebrations—I can’t even find a photograph. The only visible mementos were the “I survived the TCP/IP switchover” pins proudly worn by those who went through the ordeal!

Yet, with hindsight, it’s obvious it was a momentous occasion. On that day, the operational Internet was born. TCP/IP went on to be embraced as an international standard, and now underpins the entire Internet.

It’s been almost 40 years since Bob and I wrote our paper, and I can assure you while we had high hopes, we did not dare to assume that the Internet would turn into the worldwide platform it’s become. I feel immensely privileged to have played a part and, like any proud parent, have delighted in watching it grow. I continue to do what I can to protect its future. I hope you’ll join me today in raising a toast to the Internet—may it continue to connect us for years to come.

A tribute to Turing, the father of modern computing

“The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there.” It’s a saying that rings especially true in the world of technology. But while innovating requires us to focus on the future, there are times when it’s important to look back. Today—the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth—is one such moment.

Statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park

Turing’s life was one of astounding highs and devastating lows. While his wartime codebreaking saved thousands of lives, his own life was destroyed when he was convicted for homosexuality. But the tragedy of his story should not overshadow his legacy. Turing’s insight laid the foundations of the computer age. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s a founding father of every computer and Internet company today.

Turing’s breakthrough came in 1936 with the publication of his seminal paper “On Computable Numbers” (PDF).  This introduced two key concepts, “algorithms” and “computing machines”—commonplace terms today, but truly revolutionary in the 1930’s:
  • Algorithms are, in simplest terms, step-by-step instructions for carrying out a mathematical calculation. This is where it all started for programming since, at its core, all software is a collection of algorithms.
  • A computing machine—today better known as a Turing machine—was the hypothetical device that Turing dreamed up to run his algorithms. In the 1930’s, a “computer” was what you called a person who did calculations—it was a profession, not an object. Turing’s paper provided the blueprint for building a machine that could do any computation that a person could, marking the first step towards the modern notion of a computer.
Considering the role computers now play in everyday life, it’s clear Turing’s inventions rank among the most important intellectual breakthroughs of the 20th century. In the evolution of computing, all paths trace back to Turing. That’s why Turing is a hero to so many Google engineers, and why we’re so proud to help commemorate and preserve his legacy.

In 2010, Google helped Bletchley Park raise funds to purchase Turing’s papers so they could be preserved for public display in their museum. More recently, we’ve been working closely with curators at London’s Science Museum to help put on a stunning new exhibition “Codebreaker - Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy.” This tells the story of Turing’s vast achievements in a profoundly moving and personal way, through an amazing collection of artifacts—including items loaned by GCHQ, the U.K. government intelligence agency, never before on public display. Topics addressed include Turing’s early years, his code-breaking at Bletchley Park, his designs for the Pilot Ace computer, his later morphogenesis work, as well as his sexuality and death. The exhibition opened on June 21 and is well worth a visit if you’re passing through London in the next year.

And finally, we couldn’t let such a momentous occasion pass without a doodle. We thought the most fitting way of paying tribute to Turing’s incredible life and work would be to simulate the theoretical “Turing machine” he proposed in a mathematical paper. Visit the homepage today— we invite you to try your hand at programming it. If you get it the first time, try again... it gets harder!

Turing was born into a world that was very different, culturally and technologically, from ours—but his contribution has never been more significant. I hope you’ll join me today in paying tribute to Alan Turing, the forefather of modern computing.