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….
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.View Artifact Detail
Inventors of the Williams-Kilburn tube, Tom Kilburn (left) and Freddie Williams (right), pose in front of the Manchester Mark I computer. This early random-access memory was used in several early computers.View Artifact Detail
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.View Artifact Detail