A glimpse back in time: an overview of the EDSAC

The Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) was one of the world’s first full scale electronic computer to implement the stored-program principle which states that both data and program are to be stored in the computer’s main memory and accessed during runtime. It was built by Professor Maurice Wilkes (1913 – 2010) and his team at the Mathematical Laboratory of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. EDSAC, which occupied room five by four meters, did its first calculation on 6 May 1949 when it calculated a table of squares and a list of prime numbers and it was David Wheeler (1927 – 2004) who wrote its very first program. The machine ran until 1958, when it was finally switched off.

A large part of the design of the EDSAC was based upon John von Neumann’s report First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC which contained the first published description of the logical design of a computer using the stored-program concept, known as the “von Neumann architecture”. Few months after reading von Neumann’s report, Wilkies attended a workshop at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering, where ENIAC (the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer) had been built, and even more advanced computer, the EDVAC, was being constructed. While EDVAC was being constructed by a large team of engineers and its construction consumed large budget, Wilkies had a very modest budget within which to work and only few assistants. However, he was more interested in using an advanced computer to solve real scientific problems rather than becoming an expert computer-maker as such. For all these reasons, Wilkies decided to construct his own scaled-down version of EDVAC, called EDSAC, and to do it as quickly as his limited resources would allow.

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