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Professor M.H.A. (Max) Newman

Max Newman lectured at Cambridge (to Tom Kilburn, Geoff Tootill and Alan Turing!) before he became one of the mathematicians drafted in the war into the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, in 1942. (In fact it was his lectures that sparked Turing's famous early paper On Computable Numbers, and it was to Newman Turing first showed his paper.)

At Bletchley Park Newman directed the operation to break the second generation (Lorenz) encoding devices used by the Germans. This required very sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques. He realised that it might be possible to build electronic machinery to assist in the processes, thereby bringing the time taken to break the codes from weeks to hours. After a few experimental attempts, with the help of TRE and then Tommy Flowers of the Post Office Research Laboratories at Dollis Hill, they produced a specification of the Colossus, which was effectively a fast electronic computer that was pre-programmed to carry out a small set of specific tasks. The first machine was operational around January 1944, and in all 10 were built. The Lorenz machines were used for transmitting high level messages, and the breaking of the codes gave the allies a great advantage from the weeks before D-day to the end of the war. The existence of Colossus was kept secret for 30 years.

After the war, Newman moved to the University of Manchester as Fielden Professor of Pure Mathematics, bringing two mathematicians from Bletchley Park with him, I.J. Good and D. Rees. Having seen the power and potential of the electronic computer with Colossus, he planned that they should investigate what kinds of problem would be suitable as applications for a computer. At the time, no stored-program computer had been built, and in 1946 he acquired a substantial grant from the Royal Society, funded by the Treasury, for "a projected calculating machine laboratory at Manchester University". There was a capital sum of £20,000 and an annual sum of £3,000 for staff salaries. He planned to build a computer as quickly and easily as possible, so that he could investigate the uses of computers, particularly for Pure mathematics. (This was partly to overcome resistance against providing government funding for a second computer on top of the NPL computer, designed by Turing, which was planned to provide a general national computing capability, where known requirements were dominated by Applied mathematics.) He immediately sent Rees to the Moore School course, and in the Autumn had a 3-month sabbatical to investigate possible sources for the design and construction of the computer, during which he visited the States himself.

Max Newman decided to base his computer on von Neumann's planned computer at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA. The IAS machine was designed around a storage device being developed by the Radio Corporation of America, the Selectron. In effect Newman was planning a very similar operation to Maurice Wilkes at Cambridge, who was basing his machine on the EDVAC and Mercury Acoustic Delay Line storage. However Newman's plans were severely delayed (as were von Neumann's) because the Selectron could not be made to work. (Ironically, in the end (see Selectron Progress Report), the IAS machine was forced to switch to using a Williams-Kilburn CRT store).

Meanwhile, Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn had arrived at the Electrical Engineering department and they got their different design for a store, using a Cathode Ray Tube, to work within a year, by the autumn of 1947. So Newman abandoned his plan to build his own computer and waited for the outcome of Williams' and Kilburn's attempts to build one. In practice, he had relatively little influence on the design and building of the Baby and its evolution to the Manchester Mark 1. However he did have discussions with the team and acted as consultant for the potential uses of computers. He had a particular knowledge of the world scene, having always kept in regular contact with Turing, and so knowing about his ideas and ACE design, and being aware of the scene in the States from his and Rees' visits. He certainly had at least an indirect influence on the design of the Manchester Mark 1, mostly completed by November 1948, in that he had identified Mersenne Primes as a suitable subject for computer usage in pure mathematics; he and Turing had started working towards such usage during the summer of 1948, on the Baby, and it was clearly going to require multilength integer arithmetic. This requirement probably meant that a more comprehensive set of instructions was provided for the double-length accumulator than might otherwise have been the case. Newman did contribute to one of the 34 Mark 1 patents, sharing with Williams, Kilburn and Tootill the famous patent for instruction modification registers ('B-lines') -- this came out of an hour's brainstorming session, and no one in retrospect could remember who had suggested it.

Newman's grant was not required to fund the Baby, as the CRT store research and the building of the Baby were funded in effect by TRE (providing nearly all the electrical components and the two full-time workers, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill). The first major call on the Royal Society grant was for the academic year 1948/49, to fund the appointment of Alan Turing to the Maths department and pay some of the wage bill for the extra staff being taken on by Electrical Engineering. TRE still supplied the components (and Ferranti two new drums). In the end the capital sum and the remaining half of the salaries component was spent in 1950 on a new building to house the Ferranti Mark 1.

Good and Rees appear to have been disillusioned by the amount of work involved in programming in practice and left in 1948 and 1949 respectively .M.

A short biography on his general career (external website) , though note that the comment that Newman worked with Turing at Bletchley Park is misleading, in that they did not work on the same project.


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