Chris Burton Interview

(Footage begins with an older aged man wearing a suit stood next to large machinery)

Interviewer: Chris, where did the idea come from to rebuild Baby?

Chris Burton: The idea to rebuild Baby goes back quite a number of years. Back in 1989 we formed The Computer Conservation Society. This was enthusiasts who were mostly retired, they wanted to reuse their skills in conjunction with the museums. We've got artefacts and no one to look after them. Back in those early days, in 1989 I used to chat with Tony Sale in his office, he was the Secretary, and we’d think, ‘Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could rebuild some of those extinct computers.’ And Tony Sale got on and he rebuilt the Colossus at Bletchley Park, something well worth going to have a look at. Erm, but then we come forward to 1994, five years after and I realised that the 50th anniversary of the amazing Manchester machine was on the horizon, and we, if we're gonna rebuild it, now is the time to start. So I put the proposal up and they said, ‘Okay, Chris. You get on with it.’ And it was sort of my starting off at that point which got this thing off the ground.

Interviewer: You mentioned a couple of other computers. Explain exactly, erm, what, erm, the stored programme, er, is in terms of development of computers and why it's so special.

Chris Burton: I can explain why this machine is so special. Lets first of all consider people today in the 1990s who've probably got a computer on their desk, and they understand it. And I say to them, you know, “What's your computer like?” and they’ll say, “Beige box.” And I'll, “No. What's it really like, functionally?” And they’ll say, “Well, I do word processing today, and I can do accounts, and I can do play games, and I can do these...” “Right,” I say. “So it's a universal machine that can do anything for you.” “Yeah, that’s right.” “And you do that by putting a programme in.” “Yeah, that’s what it's really like.” And then I take them by the hand and take them back to this computer and stand them... “Is that like your computer?” “It's much bigger than... But yes, functionally it's just like my computer. I put a programme in and it does one job, and tomorrow it does another job.” It's a universal machine. And this is the first machine that had that characteristic. No earlier machine was like that. That’s why we think it was so important, that event in 1948 when they first ran a programme on it.

Interviewer: Great. Erm...

Chris Burton: Oh I haven't... Sorry. I didn’t discuss what, you know, the memory aspect and (inaudible)

Interviewer: Well just start by saying, er...

Chris Burton: Yeah.

Interviewer: ... the Baby (inaudible)

Chris Burton: Now, the main, the importance of The Baby was, it was the first computer that had an electronic memory. Somewhere that could remember the programme of instructions that had to be done for a job, as well as the data needed in that job. Now, this is the first machine which had such a memory. Indeed it was built in order to test that memory that Williams and Kilburn had built. Erm, and all modern computers had that characteristic. It was known in 1948 that computers would need that characteristic. And that’s why they did it, that’s why they built that memory system and built the little machine (inaudible) for testing.

Interviewer: How authentic is this machine compared with the original? It's a replica, and my assumption of the word replica means that it's as close as it can possibly get to the original. And how close is this?

Chris Burton: Er, certainly one of my objectives that I set down was to get as much authenticity as possible. I would like this machine to be in the Museum of Science and Industry for another 50, if not, 100 years. And I don't want a scholar in the year 2048 to look at this machine and say, “Good heavens. They were using (inaudible) wire in 1948.” So we need to be authentic, and where we're not authentic, write down what's different. So, that was an important objective. And of course that makes the problem of making a replica that little bit more difficult, because you’ve got to be cautious all the time, make sure you do things right and so on. And the remaining aspects were we've gone out of our way for authenticity and... I can describe some of those.

Interviewer: I was interested to notice that you had, erm, certain switches that, er, had possibly come out of a cockpit of a Spitfire.

Chris Burton: Well, one of the triumphs of this investigation was there were one or two photographs surviving from those early days. One which I had in my own archives at home is of superb quality. And my wife will say that I sat over this photograph with a magnifying glass for days looking at the detail. And one day a flash of light in my head, ‘I recognise those push buttons. I've got one in my junk box.’ Now, it was just the sort of association, mental association, picture on the photo, I remember that thing I built in, bought in 1953. And I'd even got the catalogue (inaudible) from which I'd bought those push buttons. So I found the push buttons compared with the photograph, yes they were them. The, erm, catalogue told me what the type number, Royal Air Force type number of these push buttons, and we got some from a dealer. And they were indeed the control push buttons used for the BHF radio in fighter aircraft, Spitfires, Bow Fighters, Meteor 1 and so on. In my Spitfire manual there’s a photo of the aircraft cockpit, and there at the side one of these push buttons, precisely the same as was on the original machine. Now, what a triumph to use precisely the same kind of push buttons on the replica as they used on 1948, because that’s authenticity.

Interviewer: Excellent. That’s really good. Erm, do you feel the, erm, the centre is carrying on the tradition at the start of 50 years ago, and where is it going in the future, do you think?

Chris Burton: The Department of Computer Science in Manchester University of course is one of the premier departments of Computer Science in the world. They’ve maintained that tradition of moving in forefront of developments of computer technology. Computer Technology today, 50 years after 1948, totally different. You can barely see the technology, you need a microscope to see it. People don’t use paper and pencil to do design, they use, er, personal computer monitors and this sort of thing. The world is totally different now. And in the next 50 years it's going to be different again. The way I characterise it is, the first Industrial Revolution was the harnessing of machinery to muscle. The second Industrial Revolution ushered in by the 1948 Baby Computer was the harnessing of machinery to the brain. Now, 50 years later, what's the next 50 years going to hold? Hard to say. What about harnessing machinery to the mind? Is Artificial Intelligence going to be the next big thing in the next 50 years? I don't know. Very hard to... Anybody who's made predictions has always been wrong. They’ve always been too conservative. I don't know.

Interviewer: Excellent. Thank you.

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