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What is the stored-program concept and what are its origins? – University of Copenhagen

What is the stored-program concept and what are its origins?

Open and free lecture by Jack Copeland


This lecture describes the early history of a fundamental ingredient of modern computing, the stored-program concept. An analysis of the contributions by Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, F. C. Williams, Tom Kilburn, Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, Richard Clippinger and John von Neumann shows that the stored-program concept consisted of several distinct layers or ‘onion-skins’. These different onion-skins emerged slowly over a ten-year period, giving rise to a number of different programming paradigms. The ‘onion-skin analysis’ permits the resolution of various scholarly disagreements about the stored-program concept and its history.


Jack Copeland FRS NZ is Distinguished Professor in Humanities at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, where he is Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing. He is also Honorary Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Queensland, Australia, and in 2012 was Royden B. Davis Visiting Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, Washington DC. His books include The Essential Turing (Oxford University Press), Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Codebreaking Computers (Oxford University Press), Alan Turing’s Electronic Brain (Oxford University Press), Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond (MIT Press), Logic and Reality (Oxford University Press), and Artificial Intelligence(Blackwell); and he has published more than 100 articles on the philosophy and history of computing, and mathematical and philosophical logic.

He is recognised as a leading authority on Turing's work, and in June of 2004, the 50thanniversary of Turing’s death, he delivered the first annual Turing Memorial Lecture at Bletchley Park National Museum and also lectured on Turing’s life and work at the Royal Institution of London. He received the Scientific American Sci/Tech Web Award for his on-line archive He has been script advisor, co-writer, and scientific consultant for a number of documentaries on Turing. One of these, the BBC's Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes, won two BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards) in 2012, and was listed as one of the year's three best historical documentaries at the 2013 Media Impact Awards in New York City. 

A Londoner by birth, Jack earned a B.Phil. with Distinction from the University of Oxford—where he was taught by Turing's great friend Robin Gandy—and followed by a D.Phil. in mathematical logic. Jack has been a visiting scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles, a visiting professor at the universities of Sydney, Aarhus, Melbourne, and Portsmouth, a senior fellow of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and most recently Gastprofessor in the Departments of Philosophy and Computer Science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and, of course, Visiting Professor at IVA. He is a past president of the U.S.-based Society for Machines and Mentality and is the founding editor of the Rutherford Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

The lecture is a joint initiative of CCC and RSLIS.