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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.