Past illuminates quantum R&D today


The “Biography of the Pixel” book is written by the co-founder of Pixar and tells the fascinating story of digital light. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in quantum or classical computing.

The story of 1950's digital innovation (now classical or legacy technology) that it details also illuminates the growth of 2020's quantum technologies.

CRT Store
The first digital image, Tom Kilburn, University of Manchester, 1947


What jumps out in the digital light story is the importance of fundamental research into digital hardware at the close of WWII among 3 groups.

These were fast-paced and close races between international teams building on previously classified military research

  1. Academic R&D

Universities included the UK’s Manchester and Cambridge and the US’ Princeton and MIT.

2. Government lab R&D

Government labs included the UK’s National Physics Laboratory (NPL) and the US’ National Bureau of Standards (today’s NIST).

3. Tech transfer / commercialization

The Manchester research became the Ferranti Mark I, the first commercial computer in 1951. The Princeton research became the IBM 701 in 1952.

Importance of software even in the classical era of computer hardware

The Manchester team was split between hardware pioneers Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn and software pioneers Alan Turing and Max Newman.

Unexpected discoveries

The Manchester Baby research machine unexpectedly led to the first digital image on its Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) in 1947 (above) and the first digital music was created on the Ferranti Mark I in 1952 (Guardian report).

Quantum parallels

Just as with 1950s digital hardware, the 2020s quantum technologies are a global phenomenon, driven by commercial vendors, academia, and government labs, many of which are the same.

Innovation along the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies is both in quantum hardware and in the software that makes it valuable for end customers in cybersecurity, chemistry, AI, algorithms, NLP, and sensing.

Artistic works — 1983 and 2022

New Order’s Blue Monday was released 30 years after that original Manchester digital music, with the art work celebrating the computer programming it took to create it.

New Order 1983 Blue Monday 12" Single

2022 saw the release of the next generation of computer music generation — Quantum Computer Music: Foundations, Methods and Advanced Concepts.



Simon Hartley -- Cybersecurity, Mobility, Quantum

Seasoned software exec experienced in scaling emerging tech. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.