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Friday, 04 September 2009 15:28

The world's oldest working computer

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The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, home to the UK's famous code breakers during World War Two, is on a mission to restore the world's oldest original working computer.

Bletchley Park can already boast that in The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC ) it houses the world's first electronic computer in the shape of Colossus Mk II. But that's just not good enough, the museum wants to add the world's oldest working computer alongside it.

The historic computer dates right back to 1949 when the first plans were drawn up for a machine which could do the same job as a team of bright young things using mechanical calculators at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell

Because the tedium of the calculating task was such that mistakes inevitably crept in, it was thought that automation would be the way forward for more precise results. In 1951 the Harwell Computer became a reality.

A slow and somewhat plodding reality I grant you, but speed was never a priority here. What was important within the design goals were simplicity and reliability. The Harwell delivered on both counts.

"Its promises for reliability over speed were certainly met" Kevin Murrell, a trustee of TNMOC admits "it was definitely the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare fable. In a race with a human mathematician using a mechanical calculator, the human kept pace for 30 minutes, but then had to retire exhausted as the machine carried on remorselessly".

The promises for automation were also well met, with the machine once running for ten unattended days over a Christmas holiday period.

The computer continued to be operational until 1957 when it ended up being a prize in a competition, being 'won' by the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College and renamed as the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell -  or WITCH.

What happened to the WITCH next, how does it work, and how can you own a piece of it?

The story continues on page 2.

CONTINUES


Amazingly, the WITCH remained an educational resource until 1973 when it was first put on display in a science museum and then taken apart and placed into storage.

Now TNMOC plans to put it all back together again.

"The TNMOC team of engineers is eager to start the restoration work" Murrell says "they have proved their skills, perseverance and sheer ingenuity in many projects and for most of them this will be the toughest project yet. It’s the computing equivalent of the raising of the Mary Rose and they are up to challenge!"

In order to fund the project to rebuild this relay-based computer which used 900 Dekatron gas-filled tubes each capable of holding just a single digit in memory, using paper tape for both input and program storage, TNMOC is selling 25 shares in the computer restoration at UKP £4500 each.
 
If all goes to plan, the WITCH will take over from the 1956 Pegasus, currently on display at the Science Museum in London, as the earliest original functioning computer in the world.

TNMOC does admit that there are 'functioning rebuilds' of earlier machines such as the Colossus Mk 2 elsewhere, however. These include the famous Manchester Baby, or Small-Scale Experimental Machine to be formal, which was not rebuilt using the original parts.

We wish TNMOC luck with the project as the WITCH will make a great exhibit to help map the development of computing from the ultra-secret pioneering efforts of the 1940s through the mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of personal computing in the 1980s.

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