National Physical Laboratory

Great British Innovations

The Great British Innovation Vote has now closed and was won by Alan Turing's Universal Machine. Following the Second World War Turing worked at NPL, where he revisited the idea of a 'universal machine', as proposed in his 1936 paper 'On computable numbers', and devised one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, called the Automatic Computing Engine or Pilot ACE. There were a number of other innovations connected to NPL, including: Tony Hoare's Quicksort algorithm, Donald Davies' invention of packet switching, and Louis Essen's first accurate atomic clock.

Louis Essen at NPL with the atomic clock that redefined the second
Louis Essen at NPL with the atomic clock that
redefined the second

Alan Turing worked at NPL from 1945 to 1948, during which time he devised the plans for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) based on his theoretical Universal Machine, which was posited in an earlier scientific paper. The Pilot ACE was built at NPL in 1950 based on Turing's ideas.

Louis Essen developed the first accurate caesium atomic clock at NPL in 1955, which led to the internationally agreed definition of the second being based on atomic time. Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who lends his support for the atomic clock in the vote, said:

"If you think about the internet, mobile phones, satellite navigation, they're all great innovations that have changed our lives immeasurably, but none of these would be possible without the invention of the atomic clock."

During work for NPL on developing machine translation from Russian to English, Tony Hoare developed the Quicksort algorithm; this could efficiently arrange items into a specific order, e.g. alphabetical or numerical. Today Quicksort is still used to quickly turn massive datasets into ordered information that can be more usefully utilised.

Donald Davies developed packet switching at NPL for transmitting long messages of data by splitting them into chucks and temporarily storing them at computer nodes. This continues to form the basis of the worldwide complex of computer communications systems today.

The Great British Innovation vote was devised by the GREAT Britain campaign, the Science Museum Group, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Science Association, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Engineering UK.

More about NPL's History

Last Updated: 26 Jun 2013
Created: 20 Mar 2013


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