On 6 May 1949 a team of engineers led by Sir Maurice Wilkes in the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory ran the first programme on a new digital computer called the Electronic delay storage automatic calculator (EDSAC).
EDSAC is one of the first digital computers ever built and the very first to have a programmable memory that allowed it to store data. Using tubes of mercury, the computer stored bits of data by sending ultrasonic pulses through the tubes and creating a memory feedback loop. The computer’s memories were literally soundwaves.
A team of retired computer engineers are currently building a replica of EDSAC (which was decommissioned 60 years ago in 1958) at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. The project has seen spare rooms, garden sheds, attics and kitchen tables converted into project and prototype laboratories across the region as the team build a machine which is an entire room in size, in their homes.
Memory Line is a multimedia artwork that reflects on the early days of computing and listens to computing veterans who remember their experiences of the memory machine, EDSAC. The work comprises interviews with three women who are veterans of EDSAC as they remember their time working with the machine and also includes interviews with a group of volunteers who are currently building a replica of EDSAC at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. They discuss the important role of women in early computing, and what makes them tick as pioneering computer programmers.
Whilst on the replica model, the volunteers are not able to work with the original memory storage system which used mercury ‘delay lines’ (due to the metals volatility), they have used a similar technology that replaced mercury in the late 1950’s and use nickel wire. Memory Line operates as a memory machine, boot-loading the memories of ten computing veterans literally through the wires of the installation and into the screen monitors on the project rack. The work relates to issues of gender in STEM subjects and the poetics of sound in the memory technologies that were invented for EDSAC.