National Physical Laboratory

Packets of data were the key...

From the world’s first Automatic Computing Engine to the development of packet switching, NPL has been at the forefront of innovative computing and communication technology.

Donald DaviesDonald Davies 29 October 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the Internet, and is special for NPL as some of the building blocks of modern computing and communication technology were developed here.

It started with Alan Turing joining the Laboratory in 1946 and his plan for the world's first Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and continued with Donald Davies' development of packet switching, a key piece of the jigsaw in the creation of the Internet.

In 1946, work began on the world’s first Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), with the final improved version going into service in 1958. Alan Turing was part of a group formed for the design, construction and use of a large automatic computing engine. We are delighted that one of the team that programmed these early computers still works at NPL today, some 52 years later. During Turing’s time at NPL, he made the first plan of the ACE and carried out a great deal of pioneering work in the design of subroutines. The Pilot ACE is now in the Science Museum and was recently included as one of the ten objects in its collection that changed the future.

In the 1960s, NPL began developing a technique for transmitting long messages of data by splitting them into chunks and temporarily storing them at computer nodes. This technique still forms the basis of the complex computer communications systems we use today. The technique, called 'packet switching', was developed by Donald Davies and, by the early 1970s, the first practical networks using packet switching were introduced to the NPL local network, providing a range of on-line services to some 200 users. This demonstration provided a much-needed steer to the development of the Arpanet, which would evolve into the Internet we know today.

Find out more about NPL's current work in Mathematics & Scientific Computing

Find out more about the History of NPL Computing

Last Updated: 1 Feb 2011
Created: 1 Feb 2011

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