back to article Turing, Hauser, Sinclair – haunt computing's Cambridge A-team stamping ground

King’s Parade in Cambridge looks like the last street on earth to have anything to do with computing. On one side is an absurdly ornate college gatehouse in yellow stone and King’s College Chapel, which combines the barn-like shape of a tiny chapel with the scale and detail of a cathedral. The other side is lined by tall …

  1. Alan Sharkey

    I remember Acorn

    My memories of Acorn:

    In July 1986, the first week I joined DEC, I was asked to go and install VMS on a MicroVax that Acorn had just bought. 83 floppy disks and it failed on floppy 72. So, get another set (another 83 diskettes) and try again the next week. The most boring time I have ever spend since joining DEC (and I am still at the same company although it's been taken over once or twice)

    1. GlenP Silver badge

      Re: I remember Acorn

      I remember doing VMS installs & upgrades on 8" floppies (just about the time the Beeb confidently stated on their computing programme that, "no one uses these any more!"

    2. cd / && rm -rf *

      Re: I remember Acorn

      I was asked to go and install VMS on a MicroVax that Acorn had just bought

      That is interesting, since you see hints of VMS exposure in Acorn's subsequent machines. *I AM SYST to log into an Econet server as SYST(EM), for example. Using $ as the root directory on disk filing systems.

      And in the way RISC OS picks up on the VMS usage of system variables with a $ in them, e.g. Run$Path, File$Path, Sys$Date, etc. in RISC OS vs. SYS$SYSPROMPT, SYS$SYSOUTPUT, etc. in VMS.

    3. Mellipop

      Re: I remember Acorn

      Hahaha, I remember Acorn trying use one of their Series 4 computers as a business system. They had a btree based accounting program but it needed improvement.

      Acorn, and in particular Chris Curry, were good to me. ..SofMac

  2. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    Also take a look at the Corpus Christi clock

    with the Chronophage on top. It's on the corner of Bene't Street and Trumpington Street, so you'll pass it anyway. Sod all to do with IT, but fun to watch for a while.

    1. cd / && rm -rf *

      Re: Also take a look at the Corpus Christi clock

      "with the Chronophage on top"

      There's another Chronophage at the Science Museum in London. It completely blew me away; I emailed the inventor, John Taylor to thank him and had a very nice reply.

      1. Wibble

        Re: Also take a look at the Corpus Christi clock

        A lovely way to pass a lunchtime at my desk...

  3. Magnus Ramage

    EDSAC & buildings

    Thanks very much for this piece, very nice to have. There's one point where I'd question the accuracy, or maybe I've just misread the piece.

    When I was an undergraduate in the Computer Lab in the late 80s / early 90s, the stories I heard about the building of EDSAC and its successors, didn't relate to the location where the Arup building was later found. Rather, they related to a building, also on the New Museums Site, but one or two buildings separated from the Arup building. I don't remember what it was called, but its doorway is shown on a set of EDSAC reminiscences from 1999, which refers to it as an old anatomy lab. In my time, the terminal room was still used for that, complete with old racks for printout, and the mainframe itself was in the same building.

    But I haven't been back for 25 years so I may some of this wrong!

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: EDSAC & buildings

      That looks like the inside of the range of buildings that front onto Free School Lane.

  4. aelfric

    P&R parking not free

    There is now a £1 charge to park in the P&R car parks.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: P&R parking not free

      ...and probably clamping too?

  5. Ed 13

    Wot no Babbage?

    He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (1828-1839).

    An otherwise excellent article.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Wot no Babbage?

      Or Newton....

      1. BebopWeBop

        Re: Wot no Babbage?

        Yes, but Newton was not really a computing man (in the modern sense of the word)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wot no Babbage?

          ...but he features in a Neal Stephenson phonebook trilogy!!

  6. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Don't forget the bikes

    You should also warn visitors about the bicycles. In Cambridge, there are a *LOT* of them. Also, watch out, as many roads that are one-way for cars are two-way for bikes.

    1. harmjschoonhoven
    2. Number6

      Re: Don't forget the bikes

      Watch out because whether a road is two-way for bikes or not, expect to see bikes travelling in both directions. Also don't assume that all bikes stop at red lights, not even pedestrian crossings.

      (Note to the cycling lobby - I once almost got mown down by a van going the wrong way on a one-way street, but that wasn't in Cambridge.)

  7. werdsmith Silver badge

    I pass the old ARM offices on Market Hill often. There often a pie stall opposite and down (opposite M&S) that I can't leave alone.

    M&S in Cambridge is split into 2 separate shops and joined by what feels like a secret passage.

    I must take a little walk and have a look at the Sinclair offices, the seeds of my entire future were sown there. I will see if the people will let me look upstairs.

    1. Oh Matron!


      My mum bought me a speccy 48K at the age of 13, thus directing me in a direction that I'm still travelling in!

      You don't know disappointment until you've spent the night typing in HEX from a magazine, only for there to have been an incorrect entry, forcing you to start again!

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Indeed....

        48K...? Luxury. We had 16K and were thankful for it.

        For a short time anyway, until we got the RAM upgrade.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Re: Indeed....

          16K? You had it easy. If we wanted to run a job using more than 2K memory on the mainframe, we had to 'phone the operators to arrange it.

          1. J. R. Hartley

            Re: Indeed....

            2K? Paradise. If we wanted 2K we had to wake up in middle oft night, 2 hours before we went to bed, and lick road clean wit tongue. Then we'd come home and the BOFH would murder us and dance on our graves for tuppence a lifetime. And so on.

            1. Will Godfrey Silver badge

              Re: Indeed....

              What are these 'kays' of which you speak

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Indeed....

                Yaeh. Back in Olduvai Gorge, we had 1 Byte. And when we were lucky, Black Monolith would come and give us a second Byte. If this was its good day!

                1. J. R. Hartley

                  Re: Indeed....

                  Byte? Luxury. We had a bit. And we were lucky.

                  1. Long John Brass

                    Re: Indeed....

                    Byte? Luxury. We had a bit. And we were lucky.

                    Bits! BITS! you were lucky all we 'ad were nought(s)

                    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
                      Thumb Up

                      Re: Indeed....

                      I stand, open mouthed, in awe of your great skill.

                      We really struggled to chisel the 'ones' out of the granite slabs. We never managed to do the 'zeros'.

  8. Ian Cognito


    The Centre for Computing History, mentioned at the end of the article, is a good shout for enthusiast visitors to Cambridge. They allow you to get hands on with most of the kit there and play quite a few old game consoles. Nice to actually see how the kit has changed through the years.

  9. Nosher

    There is an IT angle in the Kings College quad: there's a nice photo in August 1984's Acorn User (taken in 1980, with flares and everything) featuring Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser standing in front of the statue holding their new Atom machine - the precursor to the Proton, a.k.a. BBC Micro

    1. hugo tyson

      Details, details...

      In Cambridge it's a Court not a Quad; Quads are from The Other Place ;-)

      But yes it's a great photo, so of its time.

      Re the pic on the steps of 4a Market Hill, L-R David Johnson-Davies ("DJD"), Hermann, Chris Curry, Roger (now Sophie) Wilson, Nick Toop, holding an Acorn Atom. 4a MH was never an ARM office; only Acorn.

      The Turing Room in King's is the College Computer Room as I understand it; named after the great man. But I don't think there's any implication that he lived in that basement room, it's a cellar. As a Fellow he might well have lived in the rooms above, though.

      1. Nosher

        Re: Details, details...

        Ah yes, of course it's a court and I should have known that having worked in Cambridge for 11 years, ived there for a bit and having only recently stayed at Christ's (when they let their student rooms out during the summer) with its imaginitively-named First, Second and Third Courts!

  10. MOV r0,r0


    Acorn didn't 'design the first RISC processor' (although Archimedes was the first commercial RISC based desktop) and they didn't 'develop the technology with Apple' - the first ARM was an Acorn effort. Apple's involvement was funding ~40% of ARM, necessary as they wouldn't use 100% Acorn owned tech in their own products.

    1. VinceH

      Re: Nope

      "Acorn didn't 'design the first RISC processor'"

      That's not the only problem with that bit of the article. As you say, though, the Archimedes was the first commercial RISC-based desktop - and that's probably what led to the mistaken belief that they designed the first RISC Processor. Just a little conflation.

      "and they didn't 'develop the technology with Apple' - the first ARM was an Acorn effort. Apple's involvement was funding ~40% of ARM, necessary as they wouldn't use 100% Acorn owned tech in their own products."

      Quite. Apple had nothing whatsoever to do with its original development.

      The other thing that jumps out is if you follow the timeline in the article, it reads as though Acorn designed the processor in 1986 - but the first ARM chip was brought to life in April 1985, with the project itself starting a year and a half earlier.

      1. Yes Me Silver badge

        Re: Acorn didn't 'design the first RISC processor'

        No, but there's a strong case that Turing did so. His ACE design done in late 1945 had very few basic instructions, among many other beautiful design features.

    2. Tony Haines

      Re: Nope

      There are many ...inaccuracies... in the article.

      "... Cambridge’s first computer laboratory on the New Museums Site – a place that has seen scientific discoveries including the discovery of DNA ..."

      Perhaps the discovery of the structure of DNA was meant (with the Watson and Crick model in 1953). Since otherwise the options for discovery are really either Friedrich Miescher - who first isolated nuclein (at the University of Tübingen), or Albrecht Kossel who purified the non-protein component of "nuclein", i.e. DNA (at the University of Berlin). I doubt either of these warrant blue plaques in Cambridge.

  11. Tom Paine

    Micro Men

    Micro Men really /is/ fabulous, well worth 90 minutes of your time, and the complete film's available on YouTube. (Blocked at work, so I can't post the link, but a quick search finds it easily.) There's also the rather wonderful "micro men remix", a pounding techno tune incorporating some of Alexander Armstrong's magnificent swearing in the role of Sir Clive...

    Never stand still!

    1. VinceH

      Re: Micro Men

      Here's the link Tom can't post:

      1. Ivan Headache

        Re: Micro Men

        I watched MM when it was first broadcast. It was nearly finished before I realised Clive Sinclair was being played by Alexander Armstrong. Excellent casting and superb acting.

  12. /dev/null

    For the true Sinclair aficionado...

    There's also the Cambridge Computer office at Bridge House, 10 Bridge Street (behind the mock-Tudor shopfront).

    And (unrelated to Sir Clive) the Xerox EuroPARC office was at 61 Regent Street.

    1. Nosher

      Re: For the true Sinclair aficionado...

      Camputers (builder of the ill-fated Lynx) was also headquartered on Bridge Street. It was related to Acorn in the sense that it was a spin-off from GW Design, a company that had provided some PCB design services for the Acorn Proton/BBC Micro.

      There's also Jupiter Cantab - designers of thr Ace - but they were way out in Bar Hill, up the A14 (although that probablly didn't exist in those days)..

      Allso worth a stop-off would be the Cambridge Science Park to see Cambridge Consultants, which once counted Clive Sinclair and Robert Maxwell as board members and was something of a nexus of early Cambridge micro companies.

      1. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Re: For the true Sinclair aficionado...

        The A14 existed, but was still called the A45. It can't be much more than 10 years since the "formerly the A45" signposts disappeared from the A14.

      2. Ed 13
        Thumb Up

        Re: For the true Sinclair aficionado...

        Cambridge Consultants also gave birth to Tangerine Computer Systems who produced the Oric range of computers (although their offices were out in St Ives and later Ely).

        1. cambsukguy

          Re: For the true Sinclair aficionado...

          Oric had their development in Newmarket Road, in Cambridge, on a rebuilt Philips Telecom site, for some time prior to their money troubles.

          The Oric Atmos as well as the not-seen (in the UK) Stratos and a PC expansion were all developed there.

  13. Yes Me Silver badge

    "Wilkes, who had graduated in the same year as Turing"

    In fact they didn't just graduate together. They were both B* Wranglers which in mathematics is just about as brilliant as you can get. Also, they didn't get on with each other - ultimately a tragedy for Turing, as it turned out.

  14. Long John Brass

    The Z1 was a mechanical computer designed by Konrad Zuse

    A tad before ESDAC no?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An insult to Turing

    To mention the serial conman and self publicist with the ginger beard, in the same sentence.

    The spectrum succeeded despite him, not because of him. ALL his other products failed.

  16. SA_Mathieson

    Corrections and clarifications

    Thanks for your comments Aelfric, MOV r0,r0 and VinceH - we've corrected the park and ride charges and tweaked the section on Acorn and RISC.

    Thanks Magnus Ramage for your comments on EDSAC and the Arup Building. I was using "on the same site" as meaning "on the New Museums Site" as well as trying to keep the tour reasonably simple by treating it as one location.

    I loved Micro Men, but did realise when researching this article that it was best-treated as based on a series of true stories rather than the truth and nothing but.

  17. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "...and ends in a pub."

    So, rather more of an all day experience, possibly extending well into the evening then?

  18. Nano nano

    Also ran ...?

    What, no mention of Bjarne Stroustrup in the Computer Lab, typing away on a teletype on his work for Roger Needham's CAP machine ?

    Or Dr. Martin Richards in his office there, having most of Cambridge using his implementable subset of CPL - BCPL which was later boosted into C by AT&T ?

    Or Prof Wheeler, known to his students as "Prof Edsac" ....

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The world’s first general purpose stored-program computer was built a few hundred yards away"

    And there's me thinking it was the Manchester 'baby'

    The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), nicknamed Baby, was the world's first stored-program computer. It was built at the Victoria University of Manchester, England, by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.[1]

    And I'm pretty certain a certain Alan Turing wrote some of the programs, possibly for its successor.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: "The world’s first general purpose stored-program computer was built a few hundred yards away"

      Let's have it from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Modern History of Computing

      The first fully functioning electronic digital computer was Colossus, used by the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts from February 1944.

      Turing's 1945 report ‘Proposed Electronic Calculator’ gave the first relatively complete specification of an electronic stored-program general-purpose digital computer....It was not until May 1950 that a small pilot model of the Automatic Computing Engine, built by Wilkinson, Edward Newman, Mike Woodger, and others, first executed a program.

      The earliest general-purpose stored-program electronic digital computer to work was built in Newman's Computing Machine Laboratory at Manchester University. The Manchester ‘Baby’, as it became known, was constructed by the engineers F.C. Williams and Tom Kilburn, and performed its first calculation on 21 June 1948. ... Turing's early input to the developments at Manchester, hinted at by Williams in his above-quoted reference to Turing, may have been via the lectures on computer design that Turing and Wilkinson gave in London during the period December 1946 to February 1947.

      The first fully functioning electronic digital computer to be built in the U.S. was ENIAC, constructed at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, for the Army Ordnance Department, by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly.

      Other notable early stored-program electronic digital computers were:

      EDSAC, 1949, built at Cambridge University by Maurice Wilkes

      BINAC, 1949, built by Eckert's and Mauchly's Electronic Control Co., Philadelphia (opinions differ over whether BINAC ever actually worked)

      Whirlwind I, 1949, Digital Computer Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jay Forrester

      SEAC, 1950, US Bureau of Standards Eastern Division, Washington D.C., Samuel Alexander, Ralph Slutz

      SWAC, 1950, US Bureau of Standards Western Division, Institute for Numerical Analysis, University of California at Los Angeles, Harry Huskey

      UNIVAC, 1951, Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, Philadelphia (the first computer to be available commercially in the U.S.)

      the IAS computer, 1952, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, Julian Bigelow, Arthur Burks, Herman Goldstine, von Neumann, and others (thanks to von Neumann's publishing the specifications of the IAS machine, it became the model for a group of computers known as the Princeton Class machines; the IAS computer was also a strong influence on the IBM 701)

  20. plasmoid

    Don't bother getting the bus to Coldham's lane, it's not that far and it'll be quicker if you walk, honestly. You could always hire a bike and follow the river most of the way and think of Newton in Quicksilver going to Stourbridge Common as you do.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      But did Newton die and then get reanimated at the end of "The System of the World"?

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