Computers, Margaret Thatcher & Ice Cream

On 6th May 1949, the Electronic Delay Storage Calculator (EDSAC) ran its first set of programs. This historic British computer calculated a table of square numbers and a list of prime numbers. It was developed by Maurice Wilkes with his team at the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory.

The computer was built on the top floor of a building that was once a dissecting room. As one of the research students (John Bennett) at the time recalls, this had an advantage and a disadvantage to it. On the plus side, the building possessed a large lift which was designed to fit 2 cadavers, making it very spacious. However, during summer the researchers would get sickened by the smell formalin vapour because of the heat warming up the formalin saturated floorboards.

EDSAC was largely financed by J. Lyons and Co., a British restaurant, food, and hotel conglomerate. You may remember Lyon’s biscuits. A little-known Margaret Thatcher used to work there as a chemist before she became an MP (she invented ‘soft-scoop’ ice-cream!). The management at Lyons saw the potential of computing in business applications, given the huge administrative overheads businesses like theirs would carry.

One of the key contributions of EDSAC to computing in business was the automation of repetitive and time-consuming tasks like payroll calculations or inventory management. These labour-intensive and time-consuming endeavours were costly and prone to errors.

The Lyons company were so enthusiastic that they would go on to build their own stored-program computer – the Lyons Electronic Office I (LEO  in 1951. Naturally, EDSAC’s introduction was a newsworthy event for the whole country at the time, likely on the same level as AI technologies like ChatGPT today, and just like today, people back then could not help but speculate what the future would hold.

A June 1949 news article from The Star wrote – ‘The “brain” (referring to the computer) may one day come down to our level and help with our income-tax and book-keeping calculations. But this is speculation and there is no sign of it so far.’

What would that person think now?

But computing isn’t the only field EDSAC had a profound impact on. It was also the first computer used to solve a problem in the field of Biology, when it was used to solve a differential equation relating to gene frequencies.

EDSAC was without a doubt a ground-breaking invention, made possible by the financial support of a foresighted company who recognised its potential for business use. This serves as a reminder of the importance of investing in new technologies to stay competitive.


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Mike Knight