Alan Turing and Tony Brooker, Programmers’ Handbook for the Ferranti Mark I computer

Turing, Alan M. (1912 – 1954) and Ralph A. "Tony" Brooker (1925 – 2019). Programmers’ Handbook for the Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II. [Manchester: University of Manchester], 1953. Third edition, revised. 196 p. 33 cm. Foolscap with printed card wrappers, ring-bound through three hole-punched holes. Sheets of errata and addenda dated as late as March 1955 have been inserted. Some marginal annotations by a previous owner, Peter David Robinson, who has also laid in several sheets of calculations. An earlier ownership name (possibly J. W. Pullan) has been crossed out. Light wear to the covers. Housed in a custom clamshell case.

The third and final edition of the world’s first programming manual for a stored-program computer, the Ferranti Mark I, which Alan Turing preferred to call the Manchester Mark II. Drafted originally by Turing in 1951, this iteration of the Programmers' Handbook was edited by one of his deputies at the Manchester University Computing Laboratory, Ralph A. “Tony” Brooker. Grace Hopper and Howard Aiken’s instructions for operating the Harvard Mark I computer in 1946 constituted some of the earliest published examples of digital computer programs, but these were embedded in a 561-page technical treatise on the mechanics of the machine. The present text is the first publication that can properly be called a manual, prepared for programmers of the first computer to be sold commercially.

Alan Turing (right) and colleagues at the console of the Ferranti Mark I computer, 1951

It is often sufficient to specify tabular numbers to twenty digits only. One might for instance wish to have values of 238 log n for n from 1 to 32 with an error of not more than 220. This can be achieved by putting e.g. [/¼ + n]s = {log n}1−19. Then [/¼ + n − 1]+ = 238 log n + Θ(220).

A cathode ray tube (CRT) display from the Ferranti Mark I, with the lights representing data in binary format with 1s (bright) and 0s (dim).

As with programming a whole problem a plan is needed for a routine. A convenient aid in this is a detailed flow diagram. The operations appearing as blocks may soon be replaced by actual instructions.

A model flowchart from the third edition of the Handbook.

As one writer noted, "Tony Brooker laid the foundation to transform computer science from an academic discipline into a fixture of daily life." He built on his work with Glennie and Turing to develop a new autocode for Ferranti computers that has been identified as the first commercially available “high-level” language, languages that provide increasingly simple ways of giving commands to computers. Whereas the Manchester computer was notoriously difficult to program, requiring two weeks of intensive training, Brooker’s simplified autocode system was fully described on two sides of foolscap and took just half a day to learn. Working with Ferranti, Brooker assembled a team that wrote test programs using autocode. One member was Mary Lee Woods, whose son, Tim Berners-Lee, would go on to invent the World Wide Web.

Brooker in the 1950s (top right), and in the 1970s with colleagues at the University of Essex

Although it was the world’s first commercially available general purpose digital computer, the Ferranti Mark I did not meet sales expectations. Only two units were built – one for the University of Manchester, and another that was ordered by the Atomic Energy Research Established but ended up at the University of Toronto. This accounts for the extraordinary rarity of the Programmers’ Handbook. Historian Simon Lavington suggests that only “several tens of these manuals were printed,” and few have survived. Only two other copies of the third edition are recorded, one at the John Rylands library at the University of Manchester, the other at the Ingenium Library and Archives, Ottawa. Unlike the first and second editions of the Handbook, which may be consulted online at the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, the Turing Digital Archive at Cambridge, and elsewhere, this third edition has not been digitized.

Provenance

From the estate of Peter David Robinson (1933 – 2003), the author of Fourier and Laplace Transforms (1968) and The oldest and the youngest science (1972). Robinson started his career at the University of York, and served as Professor at the recently formed University of Bradford from 1970 to 1986, when he took early retirement. He later held positions as the Sultan Qaboos Unversity of Oman and the University of Bristol. An earlier ownership signature has been crossed out. We think this is likely J. W. Pullan, Operations and Data Supervisor, Computing Laboratory, University of Bradford.

Selected References

• Brooker, R. A. "The Autocode programs developed for the Manchester University computers," The Computer Journal, 1 (1958): 15-21. https://doi.org/10.1093/comjnl/1.1.15
• Campbell-Kelly, Martin. “Programming the Mark I: Early Programming Activity at the University of Manchester.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 2 (1980): 130-168
• Cooper, S. Barry and Jan Van Leeuwen, Alan Turing: His Work and Impact (Waltham: Elsevier, 2013)
• Croarken, Mary. “The beginnings of the Manchester computer phenomenon: people and influences.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 15 (1993): 9-16.
• Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: the enigma (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983)
• Hufford, Austen. "Tony Brooker created programming languages that made computers accessible," Wall Street Journal, 20 December 2019.
• Lavington, Simon. A history of Manchester computers, 2nd ed. London: British Computer Society, 1998.
• Metz, Cade. "Tony Brooker, pioneer of computer programming, dies at 94," New York Times, 13 December 2019.
• Rojas, Raúl and Ulf Hashagen. The first computers: history and architectures (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000)
• Lean, Thomas. Interview with Tony Brooker, part 9 (audio recording). Oral History of British Science, British Library, 2010. Online at: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0009XX-0009V0
• Swinton, Jonathan. Alan Turing's Manchester (Manchester: Infang Publishing, 2019)
• Turing, Alan M. “Local programming methods and conventions.” Manchester University Computer: Inaugural Conference (Manchester, 1951), p. 12
• Williams, Frederic Calland and Tom Kilburn. “Electronic Digital Computers.” Nature 162 (1948): 487-487

Note: The laboratory photos above are from the Ferranti Mark I gallery at the University of Manchester.

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