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Department of Computer Science and Technology

In 1949 EDSAC, the first computer built in Cambridge, took up an entire room and needed a committee of experts to programme it. Today, the latest – the Raspberry Pi – sits in a hand and is being used to help Primary School children learn to code.

In The Antiques Code Show - a webinar we held on 28 September - we took attendees on a virtual tour of Cambridge computer science from EDSAC to the present day. The event showed how Cambridge researchers helped usher in the era of computing as we know it today, and how we’ve continued to lead the field ever since. The event was held as part of the University of Cambridge Alumni Festival, but was open to the public as well as alumni.

We started by travelling back in time to the late 1940s to see the very first computer built here – EDSAC, the first programmable computer to come into service. Thousands of times more capable and faster than the calculating devices used hitherto, it provided remarkable opportunities to Cambridge scientists and helped several of them in their Nobel Prize-winning research, as this excellent short film by Google relates.


Very little of the original EDSAC still exists (although a dedicated team of volunteers has been working to reconstruct it at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park). But here in the William Gates Building in West Cambridge, we house a number of the computers built in this Department over the years. They include the CAP Computer, an experimental machine that was built here in the 1970s to explore ideas around computer security. 

Our current CHERI project on computer security leads the UK government's £187m 'Digital Security by Design' programme. Here, two of the project leaders - Prof Simon Moore and Dr Robert Watson - talk about the Capability Machine. This computer from the 1970s experimented with what researchers called 'capabilities' (unforgeable tokens of authority) as a way to enhance the security of computer hardware. Robert and Simon discuss the ideas - like software compartmentalisation - that the Machine's creators were working with, and how it has paved the way for the research they are conducting today.


Another of the great computers produced in Cambridge is the BBC Micro - the home computer that in the 1980s and early 1990s, so many people first learned to programme on. Created by Cambridge computer company Acorn as part of the BBC's Computer Literacy Project, it was far more successful than expected. The BBC estimated demand of 12,000 - but it went on to sell one-and-a-half million.

The BBC Micro's co-designer Sophie Wilson, an alumna of this Department, tells us here about her journey into computer science at Cambridge, working with Acorn, and how the prototype BBC Micro was created in just one week. She is followed by Eben Upton, also an alumnus of this department. He had owned a BBC Micro as a child and after finishing his computer science PhD, he started developing the Raspberry Pi to do for a new generation what the BBC Micro had done in the 1980s: inspire widespread interest in computer programming.


In the 1990s, early mobile devices called 'active badges' were developed here, helping pioneer the use of location sensing technology, which is ubiquitous today. They transmitted and received in the infrared space, and infrared sensors installed in the building could track where badge wearers were, giving an accurate picture of who was where in the building. (A bit like the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter!). This was pioneering work in location sensing and tracking technology, as the active badge project's leader, Professor Sir Andy Hopper, explains here. He is followed by Professor Cecilia Mascolo who tells us about her research into how small, mobile, wearable sensors – such as the earbuds we wear with our mobile phones – could be used to tracking and monitor our health and wellbeing.


In the same decade, in 1991, the first webcam was also created here, to help caffeine-hungry computer science researchers keep an eye on the coffee pot. When the researchers linked the camera not just to the Department network but to the internet, the livestream of the coffee pot went viral and attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers from all round the world. It was one of the earliest examples of how a camera linked to a computer could take a user to a place in the real world and let them see what was going on there. This video tells the story of this pioneering webcam – and also shows how we are using cameras linked to computers today, for example to automatically monitor farm animals and analyse the images of their facial expressions to identify when they are ill or in pain.


We closed our webinar by hearing from Sian Gooding, a PhD student here. Sian is a woman on a mission: a researcher in the field of natural language processing, she is developing tools to help the millions of people - both adults and children - who struggle with literacy. Here, she reveals her motivation for wanting to work in this field, how scholarships have made it possible for her to study here, and why female role models in Computer Science are so important.


Published by Rachel Gardner on Wednesday 29th September 2021