Looking back, what would
you say was the significance
of Turing’s 1936 entscheidungs-problem paper?
I always felt people liked to make a
song and dance. Something like the
doctrine of the Trinity involved whereas to an engineer you’ve only got to be
told about the stored program idea and
you’d say at once “That’s absolutely
first-rate, that’s the way to do it.” That
was all there was to know.
There was no distinction in that paper that had any practical significance.
He was lucky to get it published at all
but I’m very glad he did. I mean [Alon-zo] Churchl had got the same result by
I liked Turing; I mean we got on very
well together. He liked to lay down the
law and that didn’t endear him to me
but he and I got on quite well. People
sometimes say I didn’t get on with Turing but it’s just not true. But then I was
very careful not to get involved.
Was he a difficult man with
whom to get along?
Yes, I think that’s probably true and he
was not in any sense a team leader. He
didn’t know how to get things done.
Of course I had another advantage
there. I had war service, six years of
it, and I had done real staff jobs and
that teaches you a lot about how to get
things done. [Max] Newmanm was a
great admirer of Turing. But he was not
in the line management of the computing work; I mean Newman was never
an engineer. The professor of electrical
engineering did that.
Yes, everybody at TRE [Telecommuni-cations Research Establishment] had
some experience of management. Williams was in charge of the computer at
Manchester and he was a very strong-minded person. Mind you he was a
leader too—he ran it like a dictator!
You can’t design or build a computer
unless you’re an engineer. I mean that’s
what you mean by being an engineer.
Newman exerted very little influence on
what went on in Manchester. Williams
saw to that all right.
l Alonzo Church (1903–1995)
m Maxwell Herman Alexander Newman (1897–1984)
n Sir Frederic Calland Williams (1911–1977)
Did Newman’s involvement
with the colossus have any
effect on developments at
manchester do you think?
No, I don’t think Williams would have
been interested in the technology because, as I say, when technology moves,
it moves very fast. And the technology
that was used in the Colossus was very
different from the sort of technology that
took root in Bawdsey [radar station].
Was there any rivalry between the
various computer-building projects
about who would get there first?
Well, as I always say, it was a funny race
because we were all aiming at different
finishing points. You see, we wanted
something that was business-like and
would fit into this existing digital environment. Eckert and Mauchly wanted
to produce a commercially viable computer and I don’t quite know what Williams wanted to do. He had no permanent interest in computers. He wasn’t
very interested in computers at all. He
was interested in showing that CRT
memory would work but I don’t think
he had any interest beyond that and he
handed it over to Kilburn who made
very good use of it. Kilburn was a very,
very great success.
What are your recollections
I knew him very well. Of course we
were very good friends and we were
both determined that we wouldn’t allow any Manchester-Cambridge rival-ries to show up in our groups and we
achieved that on the whole, I mean we
always had a high respect for each other. It could so easily have happened,
you know. But it didn’t and that was
due to Kilburn’s common sense really
and mine. It was very important but I
mean we were complimentary.
What was Kilburn’s
interest in computers?
He was interested in providing a computing service as I was.
Returning to Newman for a
moment. We now know that
in 1945, Newman took Willis-Jackson, who was William’s
predecessor, to Bletchley Park to
see the colossus. Did Newman ever
discuss the colossus with you—
even in the most general terms?
No, and I don’t think Williams would
have been interested in the technology because, as I say, when technology
moves, it moves very fast. And the technology that was used in the Colossus
was very different from the sort of technology that took root in Bawdsey.
another important figure at
manchester at that time was
Patrick Blackett.o Did you have
anything to do with Blackett?
Blackett? Oh, I knew Blackett, he was
always very nice to me. He said he
didn’t know anything about computers
and that was perfectly true. He was of
an age. Above a certain age people are
never really happy with computers.
he helped Williams and
Well, he was a busybody so he would
be everywhere. He was very energetic
and he knew how to get things done.
He thought socialism was a great thing,
whereas I thought socialism was a
great mistake and indeed it was.
What have you found most
surprising about the developments
that have taken place in
computers since 1949?
Well, of course, it’s the speed. We had
great vision, we saw that computers
were going to be a big thing, not only
for arithmetic calculation but in other things as well, business and whatnot. We had great vision but we could
have no idea of timescale. For one
thing, young men don’t but the other reason was of course we couldn’t
see the coming of semiconductors.
Now semiconductors have given
us various things, small size, small
cost, high power but the important
thing they have given us is reliability.
We used to pray for reliability—our
prayer was answered. In my lectures
on this sort of thing I say that it was
St. Theresa who was credited with
the remark that it is prayers that are
answered that create more problems
than those that aren’t!
o Lord Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett (1897–