Tom Kilburn Interview

(Footage begins with an older aged man (Tom Kilburn) wearing a suit stood next to the Replica Baby computer )

Interviewer: Tom, it's 50 years on. How did you first get involved in computers?

Tom Kilburn: I, er, was working in Freddy Williamís group, er, at TRE, at Malvern, The Radar Research Group. Er, it was a group, erm, making circuits for radar systems. And, er, four years later, er, I mean met Freddy in 1942, in 1946, er, we came up to Manchester and, er, brought with us the start of a memory system which had been initiated in Malvern by Freddy, er, round about August 1946. And, er, the first job in Manchester was to investigate, er, this system, which only at that time stored one binary digit. And as a result of about eight months research in Manchester, erm, this was increased to 2048 digits on a Cathode-ray-tube. And then in order to test that the Cathode-ray-tube store worked, since we couldn't buy a computer at that time, er, we had to build a computer. And thatís how Baby came into existence.

Interviewer: Excellent. Er, it didnít have a name to start with, did it?

Tom Kilburn: Er, well in the beginning we called it the Prototype. Er, but immediately Baby worked in 1948, we extended it into a larger machine and, erm, it was necessary to have a name for that. And this was confused by the fact that this larger machine was going to be copied commercially by (inaudible) So, we decided on the name (inaudible) mark 1. And so the big machine, the Baby grown up as it were, had to become the Prototype mark 1. So the initial name of the Baby which was Prototype had to be abandoned. And so the name Baby, er, came into existence in order to describe it.

Interviewer: Okay. Erm, as a child what were you really interested in? Did you read science fiction and things like that? And what particular science fiction did you read?

Tom Kilburn: I didnít, erm, read science fiction as far as I remember except, er, as a proportion of my reading. Er, it wasnít a particular interest. I was, er, very interested in sport, playing Soccer and all the things that children are interested in. Erm, nothing abnormal about it at all.

Interviewer: Did you have any particular heroes as a young man?

Tom Kilburn: Er, only, er, probably the footballers. Er, I was born in Dewsbury, and at that time Huddersfield Town were the major Soccer club, although their fortunes have diminished since. Er, so I was a supporter of them. They were my heroes. (laughs) Er, in fact a school friend, er, when we were at grammar school actually played for them and that redoubled the interested.

Interviewer: Excellent.

Tom Kilburn: If 50 years ago we had known that Chris Burton and his friend had been going to reconstruct Baby, we might never have produced it. Because the thought that 50 years later every move that we made in 1948 was going to be investigated microscopically by Chris and his friends, I think would've deterred us. And I wanted to say that. Er, now you ask your question and I'll answer it in the sense that you meant.

Interviewer: Okay. Erm, well we'll move on slightly.

Tom Kilburn: All right.

Interviewer: What do you think of the modern computer range?

Tom Kilburn: Er, I think it's a marvellous, er, thing, and in personal terms it's a bonus to do something 50 years ago and then live long enough to look at it 50 years later and see the incredible expansion in computing which exceeds the expansion of any other form of technology, erm, an absolutely marvellous bonus to the work we did in 1948.

Interviewer: Marvellous, Tom. Thank you very much.

Tom Kilburn: Pleasure.

Interviewer 2: Did you envisage it, the growth?

Tom Kilburn: Are we on or are we off?

Interviewer: Yeah. On.

Tom Kilburn: Mmm?

Interviewer 2: On.

Tom Kilburn: Are we on.

Interviewer: Yeah. He wants a question now. Did you envisage the growth of, er, computers as it's happened over the last 50 years?

Tom Kilburn: Er, well, erm, nowís... The short answer to that is no. Because the growth depends on inventions, erm, made since we did our work, erm, some of which we were fortunate enough to make ourselves I must say. But many other people made inventions, er, which we could not possibly foresee at that time. And these inventions have brought down the price and the size, er, of the machines to the point where, er, normal people like me can afford them.

Interviewer: Oh I see.

Tom Kilburn: Er, you see the expanded Baby, the big machine we built into 1949 would've cost about £4 million at present prices. So they could only be afforded by very large institutions.

Interviewer: Right. With your crystal ball, looking into the future, the next 50 years, is there anything that the human race has to worry about?

Tom Kilburn: Well I'm, er, a believer in technology, and so my answer is no. Er, the computer is a tool, and like any other tool it can be misused, but it can be used to good advantage. And in my opinion the preponderance is very, very, very much in favour of, er, computers being a positive move.

(End of footage)

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