more sophisticated machine—the Colossus. A great deal has been written
about this machine, the world’s first
digital electronic computing device.
Suffice it to note that, had Newman
done nothing else in his career, Colossus would have entitled him to a place
in the pantheon of pioneers of early
As it was, the Colossus profoundly
affected Newman’s future career. He
saw at once, as few others did, the impact computing would come to have
on mathematics and he decided to establish a computer-building project as
soon as the war was over. In Newman’s
judgment, the mathematics department at Cambridge was not the right
environment for this, and he began to
look around for a more suitable setting. With Blackett’s help and encouragement, Newman was appointed to
the Fielden Chair of Pure Mathematics
at Manchester University, the post having become vacant when Louis Mordell
moved in the opposite direction to take
up the Sadleirian Chair. Newman had
two clear goals in mind: To establish a
first-rate department that could stand
comparison with the best in the country and to build a computer. At Bletchley Park, Max had been surrounded by
people who could help him achieve
In a clear declaration of intent,
Newman brought with him Jack Good
and David Rees, both of whom had
been at Cambridge before the war, and
as part of Newman’s section at Bletchley Park, they had experience working
on Colossus. With further assistance
from Blackett, a substantial grant was
obtained from the Royal Society. This
was an innovative use of Royal Society
funds and was the first award made for
the purpose of developing a computer.
The only piece of the puzzle that was
missing was a lead engineer. Newman
was not the only person looking for a
top-flight engineer: the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was also planning
to build a computer and “good circuit”
men, Newman wrote to von Neumann,
were “both rare and not procurable
when found.” 4
Thus it was that, at war’s end, F.C.
(Freddie) Williams found himself in the
fortunate position of being a man much
in demand. It must have been quite a
disappointment to the NPL when, in
on the first
generation of British
late 1946, Williams was offered and accepted the Edward Stocks Massey chair
of Electro-Technics at the University
of Manchester. Blackett and Newman,
who had earlier discussed with I.J. Good
the possibility of hiring Williams, were
both on the appointments panel.
Having secured the support of the
university, obtained funding from the
Royal Society, and assembled a first-rate team of mathematicians and engineers, Newman now had all elements
of his computer-building plan in place.
Adopting the approach he had used so
effectively at Bletchley Park, Newman
set his people loose on the detailed
work while he concentrated on orchestrating the endeavor. The result was success beyond all expectation. By the middle of 1948 the Small Scale Electronic
Machine (SSEM) was up and running.
Although little more than a proof of concept, it was still the world’s first working
digital electronic stored program computer. The Manchester team had indisputably achieved a major coup.
Newman’s direct involvement with
computing activity was, however, coming to an end. Like Blackett, Newman
was opposed to the inevitable use of
the Manchester computer in the development of nuclear weapons, and as the
government took an ever-closer interest in the Manchester computer, Max
stepped back to leave further development to the engineers.
Newman retired in 1964 but con-
tinued to be active in topology and two
years later produced an engulfing theo-
rem for topological manifolds. Until
1970, he taught in a succession of vis-
iting professorships, mostly in the U.S.
In May 1973, his wife Lynn died and
later the same year he married Marga-
ret Penrose. Together they enjoyed a
happy and contented life surrounded
by their children and occupied with
travel, music, and entertaining. New-
man died in 1984 at age 89.
1. cartwright, m.l. Presentation of the De morgan medal
to Professor m.h.a. newman. J. London Mathematical
Society 38 (1963), 130.
2. evans, c.r. Interview with maxwell herman
alexander newman. unpublished interview (transcript
by David P. anderson). science museum/national
Physical laboratory, 1975.
3. newman, W. alan turing remembered. Commun. ACM 55,
12 (Dec. 2012), 39–40; DoI: 10.1145/2380656.2380682.
4. newman, m.h.a. letter to john von neumann. In
box 6, folder 2, Item 2, the newman Digital archive,
the max newman Digital archive, the university of
Portsmouth future Proof computing group, and st.
john’s college, cambridge (feb. 8, 1946) (unpublished
5. vardi, m.y. Who begat computing? Commun. ACM 56,
1 (jan. 2013), 5; DoI: 10.1145/2398356.2398357.
David Anderson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the citech
research centre Director at the school of creative
technologies, university of Portsmouth, u.k.
copyright held by author.