After World War II, British electrical engineer Frederic Williams found himself on the hunt for his next project. During the war, he had developed radar technology that could identify friendly aircraft, using “Friend or Foe,” or IFF, radar. So, what could he tackle next?

Enter the problem of random access memory (RAM), or providing quick access to data currently being used. Teaming with Tom Kilburn at Manchester University, Williams developed a cathode-ray tube that did the trick. The Williams-Kilburn Tube, also known as the Williams Tube, built on previous cathode-ray tube development.

On Dec. 11, 1946, Williams received the patent for the Williams-Kilburn tube, which stored data on a series of phosphorescent dots representing binary ones and zeroes. 

The Williams-Kilburn tube in action

The tube was incorporated into the Manchester Baby, the first computer containing all of the components of a modern computer. Also known as the Small-Scale Experimental Machine, the Baby became the first electronic digital computer to run a stored program on June 21, 1948. It was actually Kilburn who wrote the program, which was designed to find the highest factor of an integer. The Williams-Kilburn Tube inside the Baby not only stored the data for a program, but also the instructions for running it. A series of switches provided the only input mechanism.

The Baby itself had one purpose: proving the Williams-Kilburn Tube worked. Immediately, the engineering duo began developing a more useful machine, which ultimately became the Manchester Mark I. Cathode-ray tubes provided computer memory until the development of core memory in the mid-1950s. Williams was eventually honored for his work when he received a knighthood in 1976.

Photo: Leremy/Shutterstock

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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