The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine

Earlier today I saw a fascinating demonstration at Manchester Science Museum of a replica Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (nicked named ‘Baby’). This was the first computer with electronic memory:

The facilitator of the demonstration gave a wonderfully clear explanation of how the physical mechanisms of the machine operated. I’d understood the principle of how memory worked (encoding sequences of information in binary, through their instantiation in artefacts which can be switched between ‘on’ or ‘off’) but I hadn’t realised how brutely physical this process was.

Over the coming months, I’d like to learn a lot more about the history of computing, with a particular focus on its physicality. As Susan Halford and other have argued, there’s a tendency to ‘black box’ technology within the digital social sciences. As much as I endorse this critique in theory, I’ve nonetheless been guilty of black boxing in practice. Learning more about the physical mechanisms of computing seems like a useful way of overcoming this tendency in my thinking. Any suggestions of things to read, think about or visit would be very welcome.

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