Computing Profession

Google’s Mini-Films Bring to Life the Early Days of Computing and the Internet

A replica of the first 'stored-program' computer.
"Baby," the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, was the first "stored program" computer. Shown here is a replica of Baby that lives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England.

Vint Cerf recalls being "absolutely astonished" by some of the things he learned from seven mini-films about Britain’s role in the early days of computers and the Internet, the most-recent of which was released in August.

And that’s saying something — given the fact that Cerf, who is both ACM’s president and Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, is considered one of the "fathers of the Internet," having co-invented the two original Internet protocols (IP and TCP).

The seven films related to the UK, which were all produced and funded by Google, are:

The Birth Of The Internet In The UK (39:42)

Manchester Baby: World’s First Stored Program (7:47)

EDSAC: A Cultural Shift In Computing (7:42)

Operating The Bombe: Jean Valentine’s Story (5:18)

Ferranti Atlas: Britain’s First Supercomputer (6:34)

Colossus: Creating A Giant (8:40)

LEO: Celebrating The Pioneers (7:20)

Also included in the series are:

All are available for viewing on YouTube.

"These films really personify the technology," says Cerf, "and they make it more human in the sense that we learn the stories of the people in addition to getting insights into the technological milestones they represent."

What viewers are likely to learn, he adds, is "how absolutely astonishing it was that these pioneers were able to get these machines to work given the primitive technology they had to work with. The fact that, by wiring together discrete components and tubes and mercury delay lines, they were able to do programming and virtual memory is nothing short of miraculous."

Cerf admits his favorite of the films is "WEIZAC: Israel’s First Computer," which describes how his thesis advisor, Gerald Estrin, served as research engineer in the von Neumann group at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and then was invited by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to direct the WEIZAC Project in 1954. WEIZAC (Weizmann Automatic Computer) was the first computer in Israel, and one of the first large-scale, stored-program, electronic computers in the world.

"I must say that’s a story I never heard from Gerry (Estrin) because he was so modest," explains Cerf. "Here he was, at the forefront of computing in the 1950s, yet he never really blew his own horn. I was fascinated to learn about that in this film."

Funded from a budget intended to support small-scale projects and partnerships across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), the film series is the brainchild of Lynette Webb, senior manager for external relations at Google UK, and was produced by Across the Pond, Google’s in-house video agency for EMEA.

As to why Google — a Mountain View, CA-based company — is funding the UK-specific series, a written statement from the company explains that it believes that "tales of ‘machine dinosaurs’ and the people who created and used them can catch the interest even of non-technical audiences, and potentially spark a wider interest in computer science. Our involvement is a natural extension of our work promoting computer science education in the UK."

The goal of the films, adds Webb, is to help preserve the stories about computer science while telling them in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience.

"If you search online, there are lots of transcripts of audio interviews but they’re very detailed and most seem more geared towards historians rather than casual readers," Webb explains. "I found a wonderful decade-old BBC radio series, but it would have been better with pictures. To me, there’s something special about being able to see the twinkle in peoples’ eyes as they reminisce."

Indeed, Marc Weber, founder and curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, believes the filmmakers "did a nice job of bringing out the human story."

"They’re targeting a very similar audience to the mini-movies in our main exhibition, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing," he says. "The films have enough substance to engage industry insiders, but are accessible enough to really interest a general audience."

Deborah Znaty, the film series producer, recalls what it took to develop the stories that "were told by the computer pioneers. We assessed how keen they were to participate in the film (some were so camera-shy!), and our team chatted with them, trying to tease out the essence of their story."

Then the personal story was placed in the wider context of the history of computing with the help of an expert who appeared in the film. For example, the assistance of Simon Lavington, professor emeritus at the University of Essex’s Department of Computing and Electronic Systems, was said to be invaluable when making the "Manchester Baby" and "Ferranti Atlas" films.

The first film came out in November 2011, and the most recent was released in June. Plans call for the creation of at least two more films for the series later this year, this time focusing on mainland Europe. Webb also hopes to highlight cinematically the contributions women have played in computing.

"We’ve already done one — focusing on the story of Jean Valentine and the other women operators of the bombe machines at Bletchley Park," she says. "Because we’ve found that women were right in the midst of almost all the projects we’ve looked at, I’m sure we’ll be able to do more of the same."

Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.

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