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The 1998 Programming Competition

As part of our celebration of 50 years of computing, we held a competition to find the most imaginative program for the Baby machine. 128 entries were received from 19 countries. Entries were judged by our panel of experts, chaired by Tom Kilburn.

Congratulations to the winner, Yasuaki Watanabe from Japan. He came to Manchester, and ran his noodle-timer program on the replica Baby on Sunday June 21st, after the running of the original First Program.

Congratulations also to the four runners-up (listed here in entry-number order: the judges did not order them): Frank Hurley (USA), Bas Wijnen (Holland), John Deane (Australia), Magnus Olsson (Sweden), and to Brendan Campbell for best entry by a UK school student. The prizewinning entries are here.

The competition was generously sponsored by Sebastian de Ferranti, whose company in Manchester produced the commercial version of the Mark 1. This sponsorship allowed us to give prizes of computing equipment to the winner and runners-up. Thanks also to the British Council in Tokyo, who helped to arrange Mr. Watanabe's trip, and paid his air fare.

All entrants will receive a certificate, signed by Tom Kilburn, stating that they successfully programmed the world's first stored program computer.

A CD-ROM is available, describing the history of computing at Manchester, including video interviews with the pioneers, and also the the winning program.

Although it is too late to enter the competition, you can still have a go at programming the world's first stored program computer. Documentation includes an introduction to programming the machine, or you can dive straight into the Programmer's Reference manual (in Word format or HTML). Programming is done via a simulator. This runs on DOS or Windows 3.1/95/NT. There are also alternative simulators for other platforms.

A Personal Postcript

There were, of course, many other ideas apart from those of the prizewinners: programs to compute square roots, fibonnaci sequences, trig functions and encryption algorithms. A program which clears the store totally, another which simulates bellringing. A tamagochi program, a cipher machine simulator, and so on.

It's truly remarkable what can be done in 128 inefficiently-organised bytes. What's required is the imagination to see what's possible. For instance, the idea of drawing a graph of a function in the unused bits is "obvious" in retrospect, but only one person thought of it. It's not even too difficult to figure out how the noodle timer works after you've seen it, but only one person thought to use the machine in that way.

In my view, "stored-program computer" (i.e. "computer-with-software") is a tautology, given the modern usage of the word "computer". It's difficult to imagine running a competition like this for any of the "computers" which existed before the Baby. And we've seen that the store was (just) big enough to make interesting programs possible. So if anybody else claims to have The World's First Computer, ask them for details of their programming competition.

John Sargeant (ex- competition coordinator) -- 1998.

The 1998 competition was co-ordinated by John Sargeant, who produced a set of pages at, which used to be referred to by these Computer 50 pages. As the prog98 pages are no longer maintained, I have now incorporated all the previously visible content into the Computer 50 pages, to avoid the risk of the prog98 pages disappearing in their original form. In doing so I have simplified the presentation (but not the content), and made it consistent with the rest of the Computer 50 pages. I have also included, for completeness, by kind permission, some documents produced by Chris Burton in connection with the SSEM Rebuild Project, which were either included or referred to in the original competition pages. .... Brian Napper -- March 2005.