Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

IAS seminar - Prof. Martin Campbell-Kelly

From Theory to Practice: The Invention of Programming, 1947-1951


Working at Princeton University in 1947-48, John von Neumann and Herman Goldstine produced their classic report “Planning and Coding Problems for an Electronic Computing Instrument.” This was an entirely theoretical study that predated the construction of real computers with a so-called von Neumann architecture. In May 1949 the first practical computer, the EDSAC built under the leadership of Maurice Wilkes, began operation in the Mathematical Laboratory, Cambridge University. During the next two years, the Laboratory invented the practice of programming for a real computer: they devised techniques for program debugging, subroutine libraries, interpreters, and diagnostic aids. The programming system was described in the classic 1951 textbook by Wilkes, Wheeler and Gill “The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer.” This book was the foundation of programming worldwide until the ascendancy of high level programming languages.