Computing Applications Historical reflections

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

Reflections on a Nobel Prize-winning physicist's early contributions to computing.
  1. Article
  2. References
  3. Author
  4. Footnotes
  5. Figures
Patrick Blackett
Patrick Blackett standing by equipment in the Cavendish Laboratory circa 1930.

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—Baron Blackett of Chelsea—is 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.

Far less well known is the hugely influential role Blackett played in the early history of British computing. Far from the center of his own research interests, he actively shaped the careers and facilitated the projects of many of the pioneers who are most closely associated with the development of the computer. Through his intervention, significant resources were made available without which the computing landscape in post-war Britain would have looked very different indeed.

Blackett was born on November 18, 1897, the son of Arthur Stuart Blackett and Caroline Frances Maynard. He attended a small preparatory school before taking up a place at the Osborne Naval College where the curriculum accentuated engineering, as well as theoretical and practical science. Students were given encouragement to develop skills such as the use of tools, the operation of lathes, turning, and forging. This proved to be an ideal grounding for Blackett, whose future scientific career would be characterized by mastery of experimental practice, built on a profound theoretical understanding. In 1914, after two years at Osborne, and a similar period at Dartmouth College, Blackett joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman on the HMS Carnarvon. By the end of hostilities, Blackett had risen to the rank of lieutenant, had served on a variety of different vessels, and had seen action in a number of battles including the Falkland Islands and Jutland.

In 1918, Blackett was one of a group of 400 junior officers chosen by the Royal Navy to attend a six-month short course at Cambridge. However, soon after arriving at Magdalene College, Blackett visited the Cavendish Laboratory and was so impressed by what he saw that he resigned from the Navy in order to become an undergraduate.

Over the following two decades, Blackett’s career made rapid progress. In 1933, Blackett was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and, that same year, left Cambridge and moved to Birkbeck College, London, to head his own laboratory. In autumn 1937, Blackett succeeded W.L. Bragg as the Langworthy Professor of Physics in the Victoria University Manchester and right away set about refocusing the department’s profile and activities. As part of the overall reorganization, he persuaded the university to create a new chair in theoretical physics, installing Douglas Hartree, who had previously held the chair in applied mathematics, as the first incumbent.

After the war, Blackett was eager to see a civilian computer developed at Manchester.

It was at this point that Blackett’s personal involvement with computing seems to have begun. The stimulus came from his interest in the mechanical differential analyzer that Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter had installed in the basement of the physics department. This was an analog device in which the value of a variable was determined by the rotation of a shaft, which was, in turn, dependent on a human operator accurately tracing an input curve. Working together with F.C. Williams, who was, at the time, an assistant lecturer in the Department of Electro-Technics, Blackett devised a photoelectric curve follower,2 capable of much greater accuracy than had been possible working by hand.

Williams notes that it was Blackett who first introduced him to mechanical computation: “…my first connection with computers of any kind was just before the war, when…Professor Blackett asked me to make an automatic follower for feeding data into this computer. This was a very interesting and fruitful piece of work as it gave me an introduction to servo-mechanisms and brought me into the concept of computation for the first time using mechanical aids of some kind.”5

Williams’ engineering expertise impressed Blackett sufficiently for Blackett to “channel” him into war work as part of the Royal Air Force radar research group at Bawdsey Research Station—one of the precursors to the Telecommunications Research Establishment.

Another significant figure on the postwar British computing scene, whose choice of war work Blackett influenced, was Maxwell H.A. Newman.1 Writing to the director of naval intelligence, Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey, on May 13, 1942, Blackett recommended Newman for a job at Bletchley Park describing him as “one of the most intelligent people I know.”b

After the war, Blackett—one of the coterie of people who were aware of the existence of the Colossus—was eager to see a civilian computer developed at Manchester.c

Blackett’s support was crucial because his standing in the scientific community assured the project would face little effective opposition. Blackett’s role initializing, orchestrating, and enabling the work was mostly carried out in the background, but was of such importance that it is reasonable to think of him as the prime mover and first architect of the Manchester computing phenomenon. Without his involvement, it is by no means an exaggeration to say that Manchester would have played no significant role in the development of first-generation digital computers.

As it happened, there was a vacancy for the Fielden Chair of Mathematics at the University of Manchester, and Blackett was resolved that Newman should apply for the position and, once appointed, should lead the computing building project. This was not a plan which found much favor with Newman’s wife Lyn, who was absolutely appalled at the prospect of leaving the family home in Cambridge “for the perpetual gloom of Manchester.”d Her resistance was overthrown only when “Patrick got at that always sensitive place, pride in a husband’s career—he said if Max chose to take a back seat in Cambridge still, another would gladly step in.”e

Having thus secured Newman’s services, Blackett would certainly have been active in ensuring that the university supported the development of a Manchester computer, but the vice chancellor insisted “that the financial support must come from outside”f so, at Blackett’s instigation and with his encouragement, Newman applied to the Royal Society for funding.

Initially, Newman’s bid met with opposition from Charles Darwin who, mindful of the National Physical Laboratory’s plans to develop its own computer, saw no reason to establish a second (rival) project at Manchester. A committee comprising Darwin, Hartree, William Hodge, Henry Whitehead, and Blackett was established to settle the matter, and approved Newman’s proposal on a majority vote with a single dissenting voice.

Neither Blackett nor Newman had either the inclination, or the skills, to undertake the detailed hardware design of a computer. Therefore, it was essential to procure an engineer who could lead the hardware development. There was some limited support available from the head of Electro-Technics, Willis Jackson, who was prepared to provide a departmental home for the engineer(s) once appointed, but had no intention of personally leading the circuit design.

Blackett put it to Newman that Williams might be the man for the job, but in the post-war period, capable engineers were in very short supply, and Williams was also being pursued by NPL, which hoped Williams would build Alan Turing’s ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). In the end, the prospect of a professorial appointment, headship of a university department, and the freedom to pursue his own ideas for computer memory were sufficient inducement to bring Williams to Manchester.

Just a few months after the first successful running of the Manchester Baby machine, Blackett suggested that the Ministry of Supply’s chief scientist, Ben Lockspeiser, who was paying an informal visit to Blackett, should see the computer for himself. This took place in October 1948. A junior engineer, Geoff C. Tootill, was on hand to give what turned out to be a very successful demonstration of the machine. Lockspeiser was sufficiently impressed with what he saw to arrange immediately for the treasury to commit £100,000 to support Ferranti, a local manufacturer, in the further development of a computer built under Williams’ overall direction. The creation of this link between the university and industry was an important factor in assuring the future of computers at Manchester.

During his long and varied career, Blackett was the deserved recipient of almost every honor his profession and colleagues could bestow.

Blackett’s roles on a variety of government advisory committees placed him in an excellent position to have an impact on the way in which computing developed and was supported in Britain, and was instrumental in setting up the National Computing Centre, the purpose of which was to be the voice of the computer user, to give advice and training to computer users outside the public sector, to act as a library service for existing software, and to develop new software.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Blackett’s outspoken views about British and American nuclear weapons policies led the author George Orwell to include him on a blacklist of 38 crypto-communists or fellow travelers that Orwell drew up for the British Foreign Office. However, when Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party in 1963, Blackett’s political fortunes recovered. It was at Blackett’s suggestion that Wilson created the Ministry of Technology (MinTech) which became the most comprehensive production ministry Britain has ever had,3 and initially, according to Maddock, Blackett’s views “were accepted as absolute and his priorities determined the activities of the day.”g

Between 1965 and 1970, Blackett served as president of the Royal Society, and in 1969 he was created a life peer taking the title Baron Blackett of Chelsea. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru sought his opinions on the research and development needs of the Indian armed forces. Over the course of the following 20 years, Blackett’s interest in the subcontinent deepened, and he gradually reined back on his involvement with MinTech. He visited India on many occasions, often as Nehru’s guest.

Blackett died on July 13, 1974, at 76 years old. During his long and varied career, he was the deserved recipient of almost every honor his profession and colleagues could bestow. Sir Harrie Massey voiced the opinion of many when, speaking at a memorial gathering in Blackett’s honor, he observed that Blackett: “Never spoke without having something stimulating to say. The fact that he was by no means taciturn is a tribute to the fertility of his mind and the width of his interests.”6

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UF1 Figure. Patrick Blackett standing by equipment in the Cavendish Laboratory circa 1930.

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    1. Anderson, D. Max Newman: Forgotten man of early British computing. Commun. ACM 56, 5 (May 2013), 29–31.

    2. Blackett, P.M.S. and Williams, F.C. An automatic curve follower for use with the differential analyser. In Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 35, 3 (July 1939), 494–505.

    3. Edgerton, D. The "white heat" revisited: The British government and technology in the 1960s. Twentieth Century British History 7, 1 (1996), 53–82.

    4. Evans, C.R. Interview with Herman Heine Goldstine, Unpublished interview (transcript by David P. Anderson). Science Museum/National Physical Laboratory, 1976.

    5. Evans, C.R. Pioneers of computing 7: F.C. Williams. Interview with F.C. Williams audio recording 1976 (transcript by David P. Anderson). Science Museum, London, 1998.

    6. Hodgkin, A. et al. Memorial meeting for Lord Blackett, OM, CH, FRS, at the Royal Society on October 31, 1974. Notes and Records of the Royal Soc. of London 29, 2 (1975), 135–162.

    a. For example, Lavington, S.H. A History of Manchester Computers (2nd ed.). British Computer Society, 1998.

    b. Personal correspondence from P.M.S. Blackett to M.H.A. Newman, June 22, 1942 Facsimile available at The Newman Digital Archive, the Future Proof Computing Group, Portsmouth, and St. John's College, Cambridge; http://bit.ly/17No0r0

    c. Brian Randell, personal communication with author, January 20, 2005.

    d. Letter from Lyn Newman to Hella Weyl, March 1945. Cited in W. Newman, "Married to a Mathematician: Lyn Newman's Life in Letters," The Eagle, St. John's College, Cambridge, 2002, 47–55.

    e. Letter from Lyn Newman to Antoinette, Viscountess Esher, 1948. Cited in Newman, W., "Married to a Mathematician: Lyn Newman's Life in Letters," The Eagle, St. John's College, Cambridge, 2002, 47–55.

    f. M.H.A. Newman, letter to the Secretary of the Royal Society, January 28, 1946. Facsimile available at The Newman Digital Archive, the Future Proof Computing Group, Portsmouth, and St. John's College, Cambridge; http://bit.ly/14LmrMe

    g. Personal correspondence with Sir Ieuan Maddock (deputy controller in the Ministry of Technology, 1965) cited in Lovell, "Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett of Chelsea," 1–116.

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