Computer Laboratory


Mathematical Laboratory entrance in the 1950s Cambridge has been an internationally respected centre of learning since the 13th century. Over the course of the last century the University of Cambridge has been the origin of fundamental advances in nuclear physics, molecular biology and computer science. Over three hundred companies and commercial laboratories specialising in computing and advanced technology are concentrated in the area.

The Computer Laboratory was founded in 1937 (as the Mathematical Laboratory) for work on mechanical calculators and analogue computers. It became involved in digital computing after 1945 under the direction of Professor Maurice Wilkes. Some of the Cambridge developments of that period belong in the basic stock of computing knowledge, for example the ideas of subroutines and of microprogramming.

In those early days the study of computing as an academic subject and the provision of computing facilities to the University as a whole were intimately bound together. The research undertaken involved either the production of workable computer systems (both hardware and software) or the development of new computer application techniques. Original pioneering work in building complete computers (the EDSAC was commissioned in 1949 and the EDSAC 2 in 1958) gave way to the early development of programming languages and operating systems. The latter included the first British time-sharing operating system on the Titan computer. In 1980 Professor Roger Needham succeeded Wilkes as head of the laboratory, a post which he held for 15 years. Subsequent heads have been Professor Robin Milner, Professor Ian Leslie (later pro-vice chancellor) and Professor Andy Hopper. The 50th anniversary of EDSAC was celebrated in a two-day event, EDSAC 99.

For a more detailed history of the Laboratory, see Karen Sparck-Jones' "informal history of the Computer Laboratory", originally compiled for EDSAC 99 and updated to include information about the Laboratory's most recent history.

Haroon Ahmed has writen an extensively illustrated, highly readable and informative account of computing in Cambridge, from Babbage to the present day. His book is available as a PDF to download entitled Cambridge Computing – The First 75 Years.