Remembering computer memory

The British inventor of the magnetic drum store, Andrew D. Booth, recently passed away so its a good time to remember the significance of his work for computing today.

Andrew Booth was a physicist and computer scientist who became interested in the structure of explosives when he was working in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. After WW2 he moved to Birkbeck College, University of London, where he met the physicist J.D. Bernal and began to use X-ray crystallography to look at the structures of crystals. The process of crystallographic research required an enormous amount of numerical work and analysis, so Booth wanted to create a computer that could quickly crunch through the numbers. To do so he realised he needed reliable computer memory, so he set to work looking at the options.

Thanks to a donation from Booth himself in the 1940s, the Science Museum has Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store (1946) on display in the computing gallery.

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

Booth’s original experimental Magnetic Drum Store

It’s an ad hoc affair, with string and wires sticking out. Few people would have suspected at the time that it was to make such a major contribution to the development of computing. But during the 1950s and 60s magnetic drums were an important memory device for storing data and instructions. Even today, your computer’s hard drive is likely to contain a magnetic disk.

Booth worked tirelessly with his assistant (who later became his wife) Kathleen Britten, in what was often no more than a two person team with a shoestring budget. Together they produced some of the earliest digital computers in Britain, such as the All Purpose Electronic Computer (APEC). The design for the HEC computer was to become one of Britain’s best-selling computers during the late 1950s.

2 thoughts on “Remembering computer memory

  1. Roger Johnson

    ANDREW DONALD BOOTH
    1918-2009

    Andrew Donald Booth was a distinguished pioneer in the development of computers in the UK. He died on November 29th 2009 aged 91 in Canada where he had lived for many years.
    Andrew Booth received a PhD from the University of Birmingham during the Second World War on the crystallography of explosive materials. This work involved solving large sets of complex equations and tiring of the hours of work involved, used his natural engineering abilities, probably inherited from his marine engineer father, to build devices to do the calculations. These early efforts at automation brought him to the attention of J D Bernal who was seeking such skills for his research group at Birkbeck.
    So in 1945 Andrew Booth’s began his academic career in JD Bernal’s laboratory. ‘Bernal was the best boss that a young man could wish for,’ he said. ‘If you had ideas and worked hard, he gave support and let you develop in your own way.’
    By late 1946 Andrew Booth was building one of the first computers in the UK. He recognised the need for a compact storage device and developed the world’s first rotating storage device in the form of a drum – now on display in the Science Museum. Later researchers adapted his technology to create the now familiar computer disk.
    After completing a Rockefeller Fellowship at Princeton in 1947, Andrew Booth returned to Birkbeck and built the prototype Simple Electronic Computer (SEC). This was followed in 1951 by his All Purpose Electronic Computer (APEC), which was among the first generation of electronic computers. The technology behind APEC was sold for commercial development and by the late 1950s was being used in the UK’s best-selling range of computers.
    Andrew Booth’s research on improving computer performance resulted in the ‘Booth Multiplier’ – still found inside Pentium® processors in PCs today. ‘Looking back,’ he said when he became a Fellow of Birkbeck College in 2004, ‘it’s interesting to find that the only features of the early computers that are still in use are the magnetic storage devices and the multiplication algorithm, which we pioneered at Birkbeck.’
    Birkbeck’s Electronic Computation Research Laboratory, which in 1957 became the Department of Numerical Automation, was founded by Professor Booth. It was the first of its kind in the academic world, as no other university at that time had a department dedicated to the study and teaching of computing. The department was also one of the first to offer a degree course in computing – the MSc in Numerical Automation. Today it forms Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.
    He moved to Canada in 1962, where he occupied several high-level university posts including being President of Lakehead University. In 1949 he married Dr Kathleen Britten who was then his research assistant and was one of the first female computer pioneers and wrote an important early book on computer programming. He is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

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