© National Physical Laboratory
The Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) derives from the earliest postwar attempt to create a general-purpose electronic computer in Britain. It was built at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).
The design for ACE embodied the original ideas of the mathematician Alan Turing. This reflected his prewar theoretical work on computation and his conceptual discovery of the Universal Turing Machine - a computer that is not structured to carry out particular tasks, but can perform any task specified by programming instructions.
Turing, and the team around him, had wartime experience of electronics and computation at Bletchley Park where the German 'Enigma' signal traffic was decoded and where the special-purpose Colossus code-breaking machines were used.
ACE was intended to capitalise on this work and, with the confidence that characterised postwar British technology, was intended to take on the Americans and launch a national computer industry. The machine shown here was built as a 'pilot', or test assembly, and was probably a that time the fastest computer in the world. Commercial machines followed from Ferranti, English Electric and ICL, but the resources of the USA and its huge home market meant that Britain eventually stopped building its own large-scale machines.