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Historical reflections

Patrick Blackett: Providing 'White Heat' to the British Computing Revolution

Patrick Blackett

Patrick Blackett standing by equipment in the Cavendish Laboratory circa 1930.

Credit: Lawrence Badash / Emilio Serge Visual Archives

Herman Goldstein, one of the early developers of ENIAC, once remarked about the ENIAC project "... there was a lot of controversy about who did what but I think the fact is that...there's really about an infinite amount of credit to be distributed and therefore everybody who contributed I think did a remarkable job."4 Within the history of British computing there is a long-established tradition, not well supported by the available historical evidence, of attributing almost all of the credit for the development of the Manchester Baby, to the engineers F.C. Williams and (to a greater extent) Tom Kilburn, while substantially ignoring contributions from other sources.a Anyone who has worked on even relatively modest projects, within an institutional context, will understand perfectly well, that there is a great deal more involved in seeing matters to a successful conclusion, or getting them off the ground in the first place, than simply "doing the science."

Concentrating exclusively on a few individuals, can lead us away from a deeper understanding of the political, economic, and wider scientific context in which landmark developments took place. For example, Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett¬óBaron Blackett of Chelsea¬óis best remembered as an outstanding and versatile physicist. He was the Nobel laureate for physics in 1948 and served as a key scientific advisor to the governments of Britain and India. He enjoyed an academic career at Cambridge University, Birkbeck College, the University of Manchester, and Imperial College London, and is widely recognized as having had a significant impact on fields ranging from particle physics to continental drift.


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