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Williams-Kilburn Tubes

Williams-Kilburn tube from an IBM 701 computer

Electrostatic memory tubes could store 512 to 2048 bits of data as dots on the screen.

Williams-Kilburn Tubes

Electronic computers offered unprecedented speed. But mechanical memory—slowed by moving parts—was a nagging speed bump.

The Williams-Kilburn tube, tested in 1947, offered a solution. This first high-speed, entirely electronic memory used a cathode ray tube (as in a TV) to store bits as dots on the screen’s surface. Each dot lasted a fraction of a second before fading.

Its roots stretched back to 1946, when British researcher F.C. Williams saw cathode ray tube storage at MIT. Ultimately, however, the unreliable Williams-Kilburn Tube proved a technological dead end.

F.C. Williams was a true example of the British 'string and sealing wax' inventive genius, who had built a primitive electronic computer out of surplus World War II radar parts strictly on his own inspiration….

Julian BigelowInstitute for Advanced Studies, Princeton
IBM 701

The 701 was IBM’s first commercial digital electronic computer. Its unreliable Williams-Kilburn tube memory caused an average time-to-failure of about 15 minutes.

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MANIAC Williams Tube memory

The MANIAC, which did hydrogen bomb design calculations, used 40 of these tubes to store 1024 40-bit numbers.

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Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn

The two inventors of the Williams-Kilburn tube pose in front of the Manchester Mark I computer. This early random-access memory was used in several early computers.

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Williams-Kilburn tube

A close-up view reveals dots (ones) and spaces (zeroes) on the face of a tube. The bits had to be refreshed before the dots faded, in less than a second.

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MANIAC computer with covers removed

The MANIAC computer was used for atomic bomb design. The Williams-Kilburn tubes providing its memory are in the silver boxes on top of the computer.

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ERA 1103

The huge 1103 computer was based on the secret Atlas II military computer system designed by ERA. It used Williams-Kilburn tubes for memory.

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