XTM Advent Calendar Day Seven – The world on your shoulders

XTM Advent Calendar Day Seven – The world on your shoulders

On this day in 1962, the Atlas supercomputer was unveiled at Manchester University by Sir John Cockcroft, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was Director of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. At the time Atlas was adjudged to be the most powerful computer in the world.

Ferranti, the engineering company behind the project, needed all the help they could get. Their customers, which included Kodak and Shell, were waiting impatiently for this technological marvel, and sent teams of their best programmers to help debug the system.

Atlas was not yet fully developed and the computer repeatedly failed. Ann Moffatt, a Kodak programmer, was the only woman on the project. Her memories of the work are illuminating.

“The problem we had in 1962 was that Atlas was not yet fully developed and the computer kept failing. We apps programmers could only have access to the computer from 11pm to 6am. The engineers had the machine at other times. I worked in the Ferranti Quay Street office from about 9am to 6pm. This comprised discussing the previous night’s results, strategising new designs where old ones had proved unworkable then writing and checking new code ready for that night’s tests. Ferranti engineers, who had had the machine all day, gave up their struggle and went home to sleep about midnight. The programmers could then use the machine until it broke down which was usually between 2am and 3am. Then time to sleep. There was one very old red-brown leather arm chair with the horsehair stuffing bulging out. Being the only woman programmer the men usually let me have the chair whilst they slept on the floor.”

The Atlas supercomputer was built at a cost of £3 million, equivalent to £65 million today, and for all its flaws it was genuinely ground breaking. It had a core memory of 16,000 words, and an attached drum memory provided room for 96,000 words more. And Atlas was the first computer designed for time-sharing so more than one program could be run simultaneously.

Flash forward six decades. Technology – and notably language technology – continues to advance at an eye-popping rate. Ann Moffatt’s legacy has been passed down through Katherine Johnson, whose genius drove NASA’s technical teams forward  in the 1960s and helped put a man on the moon, through Adele Goldberg, whose pioneering work in programming language inspired Steve Jobs to create the first Apple Computer, and on to Cecilia Maldonado, whose championing of women in localization is showing young women that they can choose their careers and excel in them. And global communication no longer depends on machines that can only be programmed in darkness. Cloud-based systems are offering security, flexibility and scalability. The combination of people and process is enabling us to speak to the world.

Time-sharing in computer systems is now commonplace. XTM Cloud, for example, enables multiple linguists to work simultaneously on a single project or file, and enables two or more users to work on different stages of a project at the same time. Translation and review can be carried out side-by-side, ensuring no time is lost. And while we admire Atlas’s 1962 capacity, more text can be translated in XTM Cloud in a fraction of a second than could be stored in Atlas in total.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan responsible for carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. We sympathize with Project Managers and Localization Directors who sometimes feel they are carrying a similar burden, and we offer them a translation management system that can make that burden seem as light as a feather. XTM Cloud is your supercomputer, and it’s here to help you carry the load.