By James Sumner

The unglamorous rear (Bridgeford Street side) of the laboratories.

The unglamorous rear (Bridgeford Street side) of the laboratories. Above the rectangular plaque was the room where the first Manchester computer was originally assembled.

By 1900, Owens College was expanding, sweeping away the terraced residential streets of Chorlton-on-Medlock. While chemistry, medicine and the life sciences developed on and around the original site, physics and the various branches of engineering were steadily relocated in new buildings to the north, between Coupland Street and Bridge (now Bridgeford) Street.

In the nineteenth century, the College’s international reputation had focused strongly on chemistry. Into the twentieth – although the chemical laboratories were still growing – its world role was to be defined increasingly by physics. Key to this development was the prominent red-brick building on Coupland Street, now known as the Rutherford Building. On its opening in 1900, this was the fourth-largest physics laboratory in the world, after those of Johns Hopkins, Darmstadt and Strasbourg.

The facilities were largely devised by Arthur Schuster, Professor of Physics since 1888. Schuster had a key role in shaping the College’s overall development: alongside the historian T F Tout, he oversaw its transformation into the Victoria University of Manchester, completed in 1904. Schuster was the son of a German banking family, and contributed to the equipment of the laboratory from his personal wealth. Under his charge, student numbers in physics grew from 10 to around 250.

Pediment above the main entrance to the Physics Laboratory

Pediment above the main entrance to the Physics Laboratory, showing the crest of the original Victoria University of Manchester.

Schuster was succeeded in 1907 by the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford, a specialist in radioactivity. Under Rutherford’s supervision, this building was home to investigations into the nature of the atom which in many ways defined the research agenda for twentieth-century physics.

Hans Geiger developed the first Geiger counter here with Rutherford in 1908, and around 1913 Henry Moseley’s X-ray diffraction established the relationship between nuclear charge and atomic number. Moseley, regarded by Rutherford as a star student, died amid the carnage of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915.

The department had an unusual research culture. Ernest Marsden, later a leading scientific administrator in New Zealand, was a final-year undergraduate when he achieved the famous deflections which led Rutherford to propose what became known as the “nuclear” model of sub-atomic structure. Atoms, said Rutherford, are composed mostly of empty space; most of their mass is packed into a tiny core, or nucleus, in the centre.

Plaque on the wall of the 1900 Physics Laboratory (Rutherford Building).

Plaque on the wall of the 1900 Physics Laboratory (Rutherford Building).

Manchester under Rutherford became one of the major centres of cutting-edge research in both experimental and theoretical physics. The Danish grand theorist Niels Bohr worked here for a time in the 1910s, combining Rutherford’s model with Max Planck’s quantum theory to propose the orbital model of atomic structure. So too did James Chadwick, co-discoverer of the neutron.

Rutherford left to become Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1919. One of his final achievements at Manchester was to demonstrate the artificial disintegration of nitrogen by alpha-particle bombardment, an achievement often referred to as the “first splitting of the atom.”

The original Whitworth Laboratories.

The original Whitworth Laboratories.

The Whitworth Laboratories of 1909 were the territory of Osborne Reynolds, Professor of Engineering over a remarkably long tenure from 1868 to 1905, best known for introducing the Reynolds number in fluid mechanics.

The Laboratories’ graduates include Beatrice Shilling, who entered the electrical engineering programme as one of its first two female students in 1929, transferring to mechanical engineering for a Master’s in 1932. Manifesting an impressively absolute disregard for conventional standards of middle-class female behaviour, she combined a career in aeronautics with a passion for high-performance motorbikes, lapping Brooklands at 106 miles per hour in 1934. Shilling spent most of her career at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, notably producing a modification to the Rolls-Royce Merlin carburettor (the “RAE restrictor” or “Tilly orifice”) which greatly improved British aerial manoeuvrability in 1941.

The purpose-built home of the Mark 1 computer on Coupland Street (now Coupland Building 1).

The purpose-built home of the Mark 1 computer on Coupland Street (now Coupland Building 1). Alan Turing's office window is at the right-hand end on the upper floor.

Behind the Physics Department, on the Bridge Street side, grew a complex of extensions. Some of which dealt with “electro-technics”: broadly, what is now called electrical engineering and information science. This was the cradle of Manchester’s early international strength in computer research, which owed much to the Second World War. On the engineering side, F C (Freddie) Williams and Tom Kilburn had worked on radar at the Telecommunications Research Establishment; in mathematics were Max Newman and (from 1948) Alan Turing, both of whom had worked on codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

It was in the Electro-Technics Department that the world’s first electronic digital stored-program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine or ‘Manchester Baby,’ first operated on 21 June 1948. Though only a prototype, the new machine was designed to investigate a new technique of storing information on a cathode ray tube, based on Williams and Kilburn’s wartime radar experience. In doing so, it became the first machine ever to store its own instructions electronically in the same format as its data, demonstrating the essential properties of the architecture used for almost all computers ever since. The achievement is commemorated by a plaque on Bridgeford Street.

Plaque in the wall on the Bridgeford Street side.

Plaque in the wall on the Bridgeford Street side.

The Manchester Baby gradually evolved into a more usable machine, known variously as the Manchester Mark 1 or the Manchester Automatic Digital Machine (MADM). It was developed in close collaboration with the local engineering firm, Ferranti, who produced a commercial model in 1951.

The Ferranti Mark 1, as it was called, was the world’s first commercially available electronic computer: for a brief period in the early 1950s, Ferranti was one of the world’s leading suppliers of computing equipment, prompting (short-lived) hopes of British dominance in this increasingly important new industry. The first model was delivered to the University in February 1951. Its first home was the low-rise brick building on Coupland Street, now known as Coupland 1, which was purpose-built as the University’s “Computing Machine Laboratory”. Computing activity later transferred to the Electrical Engineering (now Zochonis) Building on the other side of Oxford Road, and eventually to the much larger Computer Building (now Kilburn Building) to the north.

Alan Turing, who joined the Mathematics Department in 1948 and became Deputy Director of the Laboratory the following year, was already well known for his revolutionary 1930s work on computability theory. Although his official role on the computer project was to develop software for the Mark 1, the restless and often unpredictable Turing pursued a variety of interests which the possibilities of the computer had opened up.

It was here, in 1950, that Turing prepared his famous 1950 contribution to the psychology journal Mind, on the question of whether machines in future might be defined as “thinking”: the answer, said Turing, was yes, if their responses to any given variety of questioning could not be convincingly distinguished from human responses.

Turing’s other great interest, from 1952, was morphogenesis – the formation of asymmetry and patterns in biology – which he pursued in collaboration with C W Wardlaw, who held the Cryptogamic Botany chair. Turing here hoped to treat the computer as a newly powerful tool to demonstrate that, given certain starting conditions and rules, distinct patterns could emerge from apparently homogeneous starting materials. His notorious conviction for “gross indecency” in 1952 had no apparent effect on his enthusiastic contribution to research on this and other mathematical questions. In 1954, however, Turing took his own life.

Access: no formal public access to the interiors (most of which have been heavily modified structurally, and now serve various administrative, non-laboratory academic and museum roles). There are good views of the exteriors along Coupland Street, Oxford Road and Bridgeford Street.