Manchester Baby (Happy Father’s Day)

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

The Manchester Baby, A.K.A., the small-scale experimental machine (SSEM) was not a device of torture or something living. It was a huge innovation and giver to the future. Here’s a little more about the Manchester Baby and how it came about on the 21st June 1948, just 71 years ago.

F.C. Williams sounds like a football team. There is a Manchester connection. It doesn’t involve a centre-half called Tom Kilburn. Kilburn, from Dewsbury in Yorkshire, resident of Blackpool, was actually a regular at Old Trafford. His being a Manchester Utd fan should exclude him from my writing but Tom Kilburn CBE FRS alongside Stockport-born Sir Frederic Calland Williams, CBE FRS changed the world. Much of our modern world owes itself to this dynamic duo. Geoff Tootill, from Chadderton, where my Gran worked at Avro once, also worked in the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Manchester.

Freddie Williams was a dreamer and a doer. This pioneer in radar technology carried on a wave of momentum following World War II and applied his science to research for numerous years. Look up his thesis, ‘Problems of spontaneous oscillation in electrical circuits for some light reading. Much of what was written then is widespread knowledge now. He’d be known for Manchester Baby and the Williams tube (or Williams–Kilburn tube) – a device of computer memory. Geoff C. Tootill passed away on 26th October 2017. His contributions are long and illustrious. There’s a replica of Manchester Baby in the Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester), created in 1998, by the Computer Conservation Society. Tootill’s extensive notes and recollections made this possible.

Without this trio of grafters and trend-setters, the computer era could have been years, if not decades away. The Manchester Baby and Ferranti Mark 1 are iconic technological advancements. They represent the first electronic stored-program digital computers. Famous mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist Alan Turing ran a programme on Manchester Baby, having had it initially debugged by Geoff C. Tootill. Turing and the National Physical Laboratory had also been trying to make their own programmable computer. The former codebreaker and his team also spent much time in Manchester and greatly contributed to the future.


Happy Father’s Day Dad!

My father, David Acton, or Dad as I call him, because that’s what he is and always will be has given me many great memories. Caravan trips to Cleveleys, Morecambe and countless other days out have been had. There could have been more time spent together, but for divorce, Dad’s work schedule and other factors. It is water under the bridge now. Not every day growing up was wonderful, much was spent in anticipation and uncertainty. Other kids have had far worse feelings, but my dread was all I knew. On the days when Dad and Pup, or my elder brother Asa were around, then it was delightful. Having dinner at my Nana’s house, seeing my Granddad and listening to his many war and travel stories were treats.

I don’t look back with sadness on having my parents divorce so young. Around me many of my friends were in the same boat. That’s life. It is what it is. I was lucky. Some friends had lost their father at a young age, and some never even knew who their father was. Growing up in Manchester, you weren’t far away from a fatherless child. Then, I also knew kids who grew up with fathers who were abusive or neglectful. So, which is best? There are templates and ideals, but for many these were distant dreams not granted to us. Dad did his best, and always has done his best, and understanding my Dad is key. He’s laidback, relaxed and I love him unreservedly.

Dad often took me to Manchester Victoria station, where I’d meet his colleagues in a bland room above the main railway concourse. Broken biscuits, piping hot pint mugs of tea and natter would be had. Or, we’d nip over the road, down some steps to a subterranean Railway Men’s Club with the best corned beef and onion barmcakes (a bread roll) with proper mustard. When Dad wasn’t working, we’d be at the allotment on Joyce Street, Moston. Our dog Pup would be alongside us, and I’d be let out of the back gate alongside my best friend Pup. We’d run riot on Broadhurst Park, climbing trees, jumping the valleys and over the red brick stream within the park. We’d often sit together on a perch overlooking the allotment and Dad’s plot, watching as Dad bodged a greenhouse together or planted row after row of potatoes. Just by the Ronald Johnson Playing Field, Pup and I used to chase footballs. That’s now the site of F.C. United of Manchester. I like to think that Pup and I had a pooh there. I’m certain that a bush doubled-up as an open toilet for me, at least.

From time to time the Ronald Johnson Playing Field would host cycling events. It was the first place that I witnessed competitive cycling in Manchester. How lucky the city of Manchester has been since. Wandering within the confines of Broadhurst Park, Pup and I would never cross the line at Nuthurst Road, and we’d rarely walk down Lightbowne Road towards the junction at Kenyon Lane. My Gran and Ernie lived near there (off Judd Street), plus my Aunty Susan was on Joyce Street, just down Kenyon Lane. The risk of being seen was too high. We were sometimes allowed out of the allotment front gate and crossed over the road by Dad. Here in the armpit of St Mary’s Road and Joyce Street, up against the railway was a new scrub of parkland that ran behind Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot.

Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot, mostly known to us as ‘Newton Heath Loco’. It may or not have had a connection to a certain Manchester Utd., but for me it was a mysterious place full of oil and metallic smells. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company had long maintained a presence at this depot. My grandfather George Acton had worked here, as did my Dad at several points. Sometimes, Dad would drive into there to grab some tools or paints for his job. With Dad and Granddad, I was lucky enough to see under a train once or twice and wander around guided in ways health and safety executives now would grimace at.

The railway was central to my youth and time spent with Dad. Train rides to see aunts, uncles and relatives was normal. From time to time, car rides out to parks, the seaside and to see Nana and Granddad at the caravan were treats. I can recall numerous pilgrimages to see the legendary Blackpool Lights, with return trips sat on old Intercity diesel trains in the luggage and goods compartments. Lugging bags of seaweed for the allotment and garden was standard practice, in Dad’s eyes. Asa said how he, as a teenager, held a greenhouse on the roof of the possibly old Princess car, as it hurtled down the steep hill of St Mary’s Road towards Moston Brook. The residents of St. Mary’s Nursing Home may have seen a flying greenhouse as Asa lost his grip.

Dad’s cars have been antiquarian at best. Workhorses over shiny pride. I can recollect a Lada Riva in beige and faded cream. Further to that there was a black Ford Mondeo with air conditioning. The air-conditioning being electronic windows that seldom worked. Sometimes they’d roll down, but never roll up. There were occasional diesel railway vans and pick-ups. Dad had been for a long-time part of British Railways and then Network Rail as a painter and decorator. His job description was pretty much paint anything and everything – but not the trains. Work was scattered nationally but mostly confined the Lancashire and Greater Manchester area. Between work Dad, would have us nip up to what is now Julie’s Homebrew by Jessie Street and Copenhagen Street off Oldham Road. The Sharp factory would be nearby, so as sponsors of Man Utd, I was allowed to boo.

Taking Nana to Newton Heath market was always exciting as it usually meant a custard slice or Chewits. The dentist’s nightmares were through fault of Nana spoiling me. If I said that I liked a Cadbury’s Boost, Nana, a diabetic would fuel my requests. We’d even jib over the canal, Nana on the concrete walkway parallel to the Old Church Street road bridge, and me springing over the dangerous wooden canal lock gates. What is now Lidl, was once Kwik Save, and our Asa would sometimes be seen working out the back or on the graveyard evening shifts at the weekend.

Our ‘Ace’ was a hero to me, as a kid, and even though we never spent much time together, I always wanted to be him. I had brown curly unruly hair. Asa had well-kept curly black hair. Asa has and had chiseled looks. I resembled a pallet of spilt paint. My freckles and pale skin was quite far from our ‘Ace’. The good thing about ‘Ace’ was that he liked computers and would rarely touch my books. Books were everywhere and I’d pick up anything with words. Asa preferred computers, coding and all that. Picking up books from barrow stalls at Manchester Victoria was something Dad and Mum both gifted me. With my many questions, Dad would often have an answer and if he didn’t, he’d point me at a book or tell me who to ask.

Anyway Dad, have a Happy Father’s Day – see you for a drink and some City as soon as possible.

All my love, John

goater

Chapter John.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do,

On the 28th of October 1982 I was born.  I cannot remember it, nor wish to remember it.  My birth certificate was to arrive several days after my birth.  Either the registrar was busy, or my parents were contemplating such names as “Eric”, “Steven”, “Bert”, or “Joe”.  The prospect of being called Peter Eric Acton over my real name is not something I’d have desired – after all my initials would spell out a green garden seed.  Thankfully this was avoided when Mum decided on naming me after a line of Grandparents – John Robert was named.  I have a Mr Tom Danson (Registrar of Births & Deaths) for approving my given name, and also confirming I was born.  I’m sure Mr Danson was a terribly nice bloke, his signature on my birth certificate was stylish!

I was born a male, and thankfully still remain one [I checked earlier, and have been doing so since I was a teenager].  Crumpsall Hospital, now North Manchester General Hospital, gave rise to me.  I imagine I was a terrible burden on my parents, probably burping, farting, and vomiting to a strict schedule.  Something I may have carried on with throughout life, but cannot confirm.

After my birth and entrance to life, my parents returned to Margate Avenue in Newton of the Heath [a greyer place there was not].  There was no peaceful return, screams and wails ruled now.  Newton Heath, the origin of a certain controversial Trafford based football team, and was also made up of many railway workers.  The area was not an ideal Conservative Party recruitment point.  The house was also home to Beaut, a German Shepard dog, who sadly passed away with old age in early 1983.  Mum had Basil, a black and white cat whose hobbies included Samurai sword fighting and bingo.  We all uprooted to Warbeck Road in Moston.  We were joined by a new family addition, he was young, black with golden patches, and available for free donkey rides.  Pup Acton, our wee dog had arrived, and he grew at an alarming rate over the years, keeping his big floppy ears.  He would lick many people, and always be by made side for many years.  Basil and Pup loved each other, in a cat chases the dog, dog chases cat kind of way.  On the 13th of August 1985, my Grannydfather John Roberts died aged sixty.  The family was devastated.

As I grew older, my parents grew apart.  Divorce soon followed.  My Dad moved back to  Ludgate Road, in Newton Heath, with Nana and Granddad.  A crappy settlement was agreed upon whereby Dad could only pick me up on Saturdays.  A primary school child would always feel worry, when Dad would not ring, nor arrive on Saturdays.  A waiting child would regularly sit watching through the front lounge window, without even a hint by phone that my Dad would not be turning up.  After twenty minutes of waiting past the time of his expected arrival Mum would tell me he was probably working.  Still I’d wait until long after the sun would set.  I’d expect every diesel engine car that turned onto our road to be his car.  I’d often cry myself to sleep, crying for wanting to see my Dad, hoping for him to arrive.  There was one night I remember when I was young when Dad visited late one night, full of excuses.  I did not care for his excuses.  I just wanted to see him.  He brought with him a Goblin head, which when you pulled its eye out, it made a gurgling sound.  It was a really heavy toy, with bright and thick orange hair set on a green head littered with scars. I wish I had that toy but am most satisfied that I have the memory. I hope the good moments never leave my skull.

I would not care whether we went to watch football [be it Man City or Oldham Atheltic, Maine Road F.C. or whoever], go to the allotment (Pup could tag along too), or visit Nana and Granddad.  Time with Dad was always enjoyable.  We would spend many days on the allotment.  The allotment on Brookdale Park may not have seemed a magical place, but my imagination and the company of Pup made it wonderful.  Dad would provide fizzy pop, cooled in a barrel of rainwater, as a treat.  I and Pup would trek into Brookdale Park and its wilderness, whilst Dad would build a greenhouse or dig up his plot.  We’d plod over imaginary mountains, I’d climb trees whilst Pup bounded around below, we’d play hide and seek, and walk up the park stream.  And when I became tired we would ascend the highest point of the stream embankment looking down onto the allotment.  We would sit on the peak and look down at Dad working hard.

After a day out or at the allotment, Dad would take me to Nana and Granddad’s house for our evening meal.  Nana would cook something homemade and always wonderful to the taste buds.  Nana would spoil me with sweets, usually Chewitts, Vanilla slices or Boost chocolate bars.  Granddad would treat me to some yellow tomatoes which were his specially grown variety.  I miss the stew, dumplings and delights. The return home would not fill me with joy, because I never knew how long it would be before I could see my Dad again.  How long would it be before I would see Nana and Granddad again?  Nana was an amazing lady, always treating the younger family members, and spoiling the dogs she kept over the years:  Snowy (a West Highland terrier, for which breed Nana loved), Nomaz (a Yorkshire terrier short hair, of which breed Nana also adored), Suzie (also a West Highland Terrier and perhaps the oldest of Nana’s dogs during my lifetime), Pup (when he visited), and even the neighbours dog Nobby (who was clearly the offspring of Pup, as were the majority of Newton Heath’s mongrel dogs – sorry, RSPCA!).

A bowl of Nana’s homemade stew alongside some potato croquettes or chips and you would soon feel full.  There would always be room for desert, and desert always came with custard, warm or cold.  There was no need for posh restaurants as far as I was concerned; a meal at Nana’s was luxury.

One year, Dad drove me and Mum to Knowsley Safari Park.  On arrival we sat in the car, watching the Peacocks outside.  Dad suggested we had some food in the car, and handed out Spam sandwiches.  We watched the Peacocks for hours.  The zoological park had closed eventually.  I think Dad was a little short of cash and could not afford to go in.  I loved the day trip never-the-less.

My New Moston Primary School days hold little memory for me.  I just remember playing catch the girl, kiss the girl and catching my classmate Claire at the time; a friend called Anthony; and me having a pooh in a classroom because the teacher would not allow me to go to the toilet.  I whipped my trousers down, squatted in a playroom kitchen pen and laid one down.  Sadly, a fellow pupil and classroom whinge-bag Kelly spotted me and promptly enlightened the teacher to my doings.  I never got away with it.

A couple of weeks prior to my seventh birthday I learned to swim.  The school enforced visits to Broadway swimming baths enabled schoolchildren back then to combat the risk of drowning.  They simply subject you to water deeper than your body height, throw you in, and watch you learn that no kicking of the legs or motion in the arms will ultimately result in swallowing excessive amounts of water towards the lungs and belly.  My first width certificate was in the bag on the 13th of October 1989.  It was also noted that you could leave a yellow slipstream behind you if the teacher would not allow you to the toilet.  Had she not learned from my earlier primary school actions!?

Not that my teacher was the only victim of my terror, the dentist who had not warned of his intentions to probe my mouth, soon found his hand littered with a John-size bite mark.  Having someone else’s hand in your mouth will always seem wrong to me.  Even Mum became a victim of me pouring cornflakes down the toilet, blocking it with old toilet roll tubes, and also seeing exactly how much washing up liquid would empty from the bottle in one squeeze (naturally onto a clean surface, for example the carpet).

My craze for Thomas the Tank Engine was quickly topped by Ghostbusters, and before long Dangermouse, Count Duckula, and eventually the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Lego remained faithfully by my side throughout the years. Secret showings of The Gremlins on video at my Nana’s house when Nana was away, under Dad’s supervision had me praying for a Mogwai for my birthday.  Instead Dad allowed me to choose a present at Morrison’s superstore in Fallowfield.  Naturally, I went for a small Lego pirate set along with a large truck space carrier.  The next day Mum invited my friend Neil and another friend who like Turtles too around for a birthday meal.  I was allowed the choice of food, so we had Bangers and Mash with beans.  This was my favourite at the time.  Mum had brought me a Lego castle set, as she was always trying to bring out my imaginative side.  Neil came from several doors down.  His mum Miriam knew my mum.  To get to Neil you could walk along the front road, or run to the back of the garden and cut through the back of several gardens past the man who always recited “Peter Piper picked a pepper…” to us and made us giggle.  One day on the route down to Neil’s house I discovered a dead gull.  It looked lifeless as expected, and when prodded with a stick, it was rock hard and crawling with small beetles.  There was a lesson to be leant, but it passed me by whatever it was.

In 1988, Astrid was born.  I now had a little sister to fight with, and to love and cherish.  It was around this time that Basil the cat had left home, and moved a few doors away to be fed.

Mum, met Paul Mathers in early 1990, and we moved to 2 Range Street, Openshaw.  Dad moved from Nana and Granddad’s house into 76 Warbeck Road, and I often visited to share bowls of Frosties for an evening meal!  Plus, the new neighbours to my Dad were of Chinese origin and loved to share Lego with me.  My new primary school was to be Clayton Brook Primary.  They made me retake my width certificate on the 8th of October 1990, the idiots were holding my progress back with P.E.  However, I could zoom far further ahead with mathematics and science in classes.

We added Ben the cat to the family; and Mum and Paul also added a new child to the family.  Paul Anthony Mathers junior was born on the 15th day of November 1990.  After escaping to my room to play with Lego and eventually exhausting my supply of bricks, I decided to play out in the new area.  Originally I was only allowed to the park around the corner, and to the top of my street.  I did make one friend, but he was banned from playing with me by his parents one day, as a result of me hitting his head off the opposite side to a see-saw I was on.  Accidents do happen.  I did not like Openshaw, I knew very few people there, and the area was riddled with good for nothing kids and derelict factory buildings.

TO BE CONTINUED?