The machine was not intended to be a practical computer but was instead designed as a testbed for the Williams tube, the first truly random-access computer memory. Although considered "small and primitive" by the standards of its time, it was the first working machine to contain all the elements essential to a modern electronic computer. As soon as the Baby had demonstrated the feasibility of its design, a project was initiated at the university to develop it into a more usable computer, the Manchester Mark 1. The Mark 1 in turn quickly became the prototype for the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercially available general-purpose computer.
The Baby had a 32-bit word length and a memory of 32 words (1 kilobit). As it was designed to be the simplest possible stored-program computer, the only arithmetic operations implemented in hardware were subtraction and negation; other arithmetic operations were implemented in software. The first of three programs written for the machine found the highest proper divisor of 218 (262,144), a calculation that was known would take a long time to run—and so prove the computer's reliability—by testing every integer from 218 − 1 downwards, as division was implemented by repeated subtraction of the divisor. The program consisted of 17 instructions and ran for 52 minutes before reaching the correct answer of 131,072, after the Baby had performed 3.5 million operations (for an effective CPU speed of 1.1 kIPS).
The first design for a program-controlled computer was Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine in the 1830s. A century later, in 1936, mathematician Alan Turing published his description of what became known as a Turing machine, a theoretical concept intended to explore the limits of mechanical computation. Turing was not imagining a physical machine, but a person he called a "computer", who acted according to the instructions provided by a tape on which symbols could be read and written sequentially as the tape moved under a tape head. Turing proved that if an algorithm can be written to solve a mathematical problem, then a Turing machine can execute that algorithm.
Konrad Zuse's Z3 was the world's first working programmable, fully automatic computer, with binary digital arithmetic logic, but it lacked the conditional branching of a Turing machine. On 12 May 1941, it was successfully presented to an audience of scientists of the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt ("German Laboratory for Aviation") in Berlin. The Z3 stored its program on an external tape, but it was electromechanical rather than electronic. The Colossus of 1943 was the first electronic computing device, but it was not a general-purpose machine.
The ENIAC (1946) was the first machine that was both electronic and general purpose. It was Turing complete, with conditional branching, and programmable to solve a wide range of problems, but its program was held in the state of switches in patchcords, not in memory, and it could take several days to reprogram. Researchers such as Turing and Zuse investigated the idea of using the computer's memory to hold the program as well as the data it was working on, and it was mathematician John von Neumann who wrote a widely distributed paper describing that computer architecture, still used in almost all computers.