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Hardware Technology

UK's Oldest Computer To Be "Rebooted" 153

Posted by timothy
from the just-like-star-trek dept.
Smivs writes with this interesting piece of computer history, excerpted from the BBC: "Britain's oldest original computer, the Harwell, is being sent to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley where it is to be restored to working order. The computer, which was designed in 1949, was built and used by staff at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, Oxfordshire. It first ran in 1951 and was designed to perform mathematical calculations. It lasted until 1973. When first built the 2.4m x 5m computer was state-of-the-art, although it was superseded by transistor-based systems. The restoration project is expected to take a year. Although not the first computer built in the UK, the Harwell had one of the longest service lives. Built by a team of three people, the device was capable of doing the work of six to ten people and ran for seven years until the establishment obtained their first commercial computer. 'We didn't think we were doing anything pioneering at the time,' said Dick Barnes, who helped build the original Harwell computer."
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UK's Oldest Computer To Be "Rebooted"

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  • by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:44AM (#29298845)
    "In the future, I predict computers will be twice as powerful, ten times larger and be so expensive only the five richest monarchs of Europe will be able to afford them." - Professor Frink
  • Beowulf.
    • of cogs?
  • ...finally! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Stenchwarrior (1335051) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:49AM (#29298913)
    Once the computer is in working order it will be shipped to San Fransisco where the new Systems Admin will finally be able to sniff out that backdoor appliance.
  • hindsight (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:51AM (#29298935) Homepage

    We didn't think we were doing anything pioneering at the time

    This is why the article we had yesterday, which argued that technological growth is slowing down, was a total hogwash. Technological growth is speeding up! What is constant is our inability to recognize great technological advancement except in hindsight.

    • Re:hindsight (Score:4, Interesting)

      by thisnamestoolong (1584383) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:32AM (#29299493)
      Saying that technological growth is slowing down or speeding up is total hogwash, in my opinion. The only way to measure technological growth is by placing arbitrary mile markers in the road. On one hand you have the folks that choose to measure technological growth by new inventions and can say that we are just polishing things that have already been invented. On the other hand, you have the folks that measure technological growth by its ubiquity, and show that more and more people are using more and more tech each year. Who is right, and who is wrong? I would submit that it is irrelevant and simply humans trying to place arbitrary classification on a complex system. We ought to just make sure that we are always doing our best to further the fields of science and technology, and not worry about whether our growth is faster or slower than in the past.
      • by tool462 (677306)

        We ought to just make sure that we are always doing our best to further the fields of science and technology, and not worry about whether our growth is faster or slower than in the past.

        But then how would you collect funding for your cause of choice?

      • Re:hindsight (Score:5, Interesting)

        by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday September 03, 2009 @02:11PM (#29302281) Journal

        I'd say the biggest change since those days boils down to a single word....price. My first computer was a VIC20 [mainbyte.com] which as you can see by the specs had a whopping 5k of RAM, and a whole 1MHz CPU. With the addons I paid close to $600 for it, and just recently I built a new machine for myself with dual 2500! MHZ CPUs, 8Gb of RAM (which is bigger than my first 4 HDDs put together) and nearly 1Tb of storage, all for a little less than I payed for the VIC. Even the smallest convenience store has computerized checkouts, and checking out of Walgreen's the other day I noticed they had MP3 players with larger storage than my first 2 HDDs for a whopping $15.

        When you add to this the lifespan of computers nowadays (I am typing this on a circa 2000 1.1GHz Celery Win2K PC that I use as a netbox) it has made truly incredible amounts of computing available to the masses. The rise of "cheap computing" has done more to shake things up than any particular CPU or other hardware released IMHO. Just the sheer amount of power folks get today is just insane, and the ability for anyone, no matter how much or little they make, still just blows my mind. Anyone today can have a PC powerful enough for desktop publishing, running mailing lists, pretty much any job the average Joe would ever care to do for little to no money (I often refurb older machines to give away and have a couple of 500Mhz boxes running mailing lists for local churches) has really changed things.

        In my youth computers were strictly for the hackers and those with the serious cash required to buy something with a GUI. Machines were expensive, proprietary as hell, hard to use, and often had to be programmed from scratch. Now even my nearly 70 Luddite father uses a laptop so he can "read the paper" using the wireless network I set up for him while he watches his NCIS from the couch. The amount of freeware and FOSS out there is just astounding, and there are literally thousands upon thousands of choices, from software to hardware, hell thanks to Linux and the BSDs even OSes. Maybe I'm just getting old and easily impressed in my advancing years, but if you would have told me that I'd have my oldest designing new levels for three dimensional video games on my hand me downs back then I'd have told you that you were insane, not just because of the kid. The amount of processing power we take for granted today or even pass down to our relatives when we get new toys to play with is just unreal, and that I think has changed the way we live more than anything else IMHO.

        • by geekoid (135745)

          For that to be a proper comparison,. bot computers need to be on th same place on the technological curve. If the Vic was bought when it was at tyhe tope of the curve, then you ahve to compare that price to a computer that's at the top of the curve NOW.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by geezer nerd (1041858)
          In my early days of computing, computers were very large machines which resided in purpose-built computer rooms with large glass walls allowing passersby to observe the whirling tapes and the blinking lights so as to properly "ooh" and "aah" over the marvels of cutting-edge technology. Thank goodness those days are long-gone.

          In the latter half of the '60s I had the good fortune to be able to use the most super-duper supercomputer of the time, the CDC 6600. For those who may not remember, the 6600 was one

      • by geekoid (135745)

        you are correct, it conversation is only reletive to the markers.

        Moores's law, for example, isn't holding up. Some people think that means technology is slowing down. Two totally different things. That's like comparing an apple to an apple farm.

  • Vaccum Tubes? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by A. B3ttik (1344591) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:51AM (#29298943)
    The article is extremely light on details. Where are they going to get vaccum tubes or other antiquated apparatuses from? How much will they cost?
    • Re:Vaccum Tubes? (Score:5, Informative)

      by MrKaos (858439) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:55AM (#29299009) Journal

      Where are they going to get vaccum tubes or other antiquated apparatuses from? How much will they cost?

      I think many vacuum tubes are being manufactured in Russia right now, I know this from buying guitar amplifier tubes so I suspect that is where they will be sourced.

      • by value_added (719364) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:07AM (#29299185)

        I think many vacuum tubes are being manufactured in Russia right now, I know this from buying guitar amplifier tubes so I suspect that is where they will be sourced.

        That does raise the question of whether a computer built with vacuum tubes gives mp3 files a warmer sound.

        Or maybe not. ;-)

        • by MrKaos (858439)

          That does raise the question of whether a computer built with vacuum tubes gives mp3 files a warmer sound.

          Sure, once the tubes are at operating temperature...

          • >Sure, once the tubes are at operating temperature...
            The joke didn't need explaining. Trust me.
            • by MrKaos (858439)

              >Sure, once the tubes are at operating temperature...

              The joke didn't need explaining. Trust me.

              I actually thought value_added was having a crack at the audiophiles that describe sound produced through valve amplifiers as 'warm' as opposed to semiconductor amplifiers. I can understand the use of Valve amps in musical instruments because they are seeking the third harmonic distortion [tpub.com] of the waveform produced by the musical instrument. In actuality the amplifier *is* part of the instrument.

              I work really

              • H'mm, while I agree with the sentiment, I wonder about the reasoning. For instance, some of the most linear power amplifiers I have ever seen used vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes are inherently more linear than solid state devices. Granted, these amplifiers were 200 watts to 100 kW and were RF amplifiers, but that makes no real difference.

                Secondly, it has been shown via double blind testing that virtually no one can hear distortion if it is below about 1.5%. Fact is, most speakers produce more distortion than
                • by MrKaos (858439)

                  H'mm, while I agree with the sentiment, I wonder about the reasoning. For instance, some of the most linear power amplifiers I have ever seen used vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes are inherently more linear than solid state devices. Granted, these amplifiers were 200 watts to 100 kW and were RF amplifiers, but that makes no real difference.

                  From my understanding this is a factor because audio power amplifiers (domestic and musical) introduce the third harmonic distortion as the tubes are being physically vibrated

              • >I work really hard with the bands I produce (I produce music) to create *exactly* the sound intended
                It must be really depressing then to have the CD mastering wreck all that with over compression.
                • by MrKaos (858439)

                  >I work really hard with the bands I produce (I produce music) to create *exactly* the sound intended

                  It must be really depressing then to have the CD mastering wreck all that with over compression.

                  my transient control is so practised that a mastering engineer would have to try real hard to fuck up my mixes. Even so, why take a chance, so I actually do the mastering to disc.

        • That does raise the question of whether a computer built with vacuum tubes gives mp3 files a warmer sound.

          Nah, they are from Russia, nothing is warm there.

          Actually, the tubes give a cool sound, just be careful to don't get them clogged.

        • For best results, the power cable should be gold-plated and cost $200 or more.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        There are still plently of places in the UK that make these, admittedly most of the ones i know are hand-made for guitar amplifiers but they most certainly are made in the UK.

      • Better watch out for trojans and backdoors in those tubes put there by the Russians, in case this computer were ever to be used against them in a war.

      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        by JCCyC (179760)

        In Soviet Russia, tubes vacuum you!

      • In Soviet Russia , Vaccum tubes manufacture you!
    • by Krneki (1192201)

      How much will they cost?

      There is no greater wealth than wisdom, no greater poverty than ignorance; no greater heritage than culture and no greater support than consultation

    • Re:Vaccum Tubes? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by rubycodez (864176) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:42AM (#29299631)

      the thing uses dekatrons (ten cathode tube where pulse on guide electrode next to a cathode makes conduction jump to next cathode), which though not produced anymore are widely available. A computer made from them is much like a mechanical cash register with counting wheels. they are used by many hobbyists for clocks and other counting applications. no problem getting them

    • by Zoxed (676559)

      I *think* that the point is that it is already mostly complete: hence ""Britain's oldest *original* computer" (emphasis added). Other older computers exist in the UK, but they are replicas or re-builds.

  • by marciot (598356) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:57AM (#29299049)

    I've found that for older hardware that is running fine 24x7, the worst thing is to shut it down. It invariably fails to start up again.

    • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:50AM (#29299787)
      The original US tube-based computer (I forget the acronym) had about 5000 tubes, each of which had a MTTF of around 2-3000 hours. Many people thought that it would break down too often to be of any use. But the designers had realised that what kills tubes is turnon (when the filament carries more current because it is low resistance) causing filament damage and thermal shock damage to the envelope. If the tubes were warmed up slowly and then left on all the time, there would be an infant mortality phase but then the machine would get more reliable with time as the tubes got into the depths of the bathtub life curve.

      Pedant note: although "all the time" or "always on" have more letters than "24x7", they are quicker to say and more meaningful. Why do we have this horrible cypher?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by value_added (719364)

        Pedant note: although "all the time" or "always on" have more letters than "24x7", they are quicker to say and more meaningful. Why do we have this horrible cypher?

        Pedant note: The term "cypher" is not a meaningful synonym for argot, cliche, neologism, colloquialism, expression, jargon, localism, newspeak, parlance, phrase, or vernacular (among others).

        That's not to say slipping in other people's mud isn't forgivable. ;-)

      • This was rediscovered by the US (ENIAC) in 1946 , those people at Bletchley Park discovered this and built a computer using the idea of not turning them off in 1943 ...Wartime Official secrets stopped them telling anyone ....

        The hardware people who discovered this were the Post Office (Telecoms) who used tubes for switching and knew the pitfalls ...

      • by Anonym1ty (534715)
        Why do we have this horrible cypher?

        Because of the written part of our language.
    • by operagost (62405)
      Invariably? As a former sysadmin for what was an eight year old VAX at the time, I can assure you that we were able to completely shut down the hardware at least once while I was there-- disks and everything. The VAX had been booted for over a year and the disks and controllers for THREE.
  • by MickyTheIdiot (1032226) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @09:59AM (#29299077) Homepage Journal

    Okay.. I know that the premise of this joke is totally wrpng and UK scientists were computing pioneers, but it reminds me my favorite joke my father ever told me:

    Q: Why didn't the British never make a computer?
    A: They couldn't figure out a way to make it leak oil.

    (I think the joke is incorrect... probably on both counts).

    • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

      by maxume (22995)

      There are all sorts of non sequiturs that fit in there:

      Q: Why didn't the British ever make a computer?
      A: Have you tried the food?!

    • by value_added (719364) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:42AM (#29299633)

      A: They couldn't figure out a way to make it leak oil.

      And that's a bad thing?

      My first car was a 2-seater Triumph convertible. It suffered from electrical system problems, leaking hydraulics, and when it rained, the top would leak (even if you managed to snap all the buttons downs correctly). But was it fun! Wind through my hair, wet shoulders, the smell of hydraulic fluid dripping on my left shoe, being pulled over and cited for "overcrowding" when I had more than 3 passengers in the car ...

      The cars I've owned since have all been what you'd call dependable if not "top of the line", but I can't remember a single interesting about them.

      • As a practical person, I prefer my car to be efficient in its abilities to get me to places I want to go, and its ability to not be a burden on my wallet. Ill trade 'interesting' for that any day.

      • by svtdragon (917476) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @01:04PM (#29301415)

        My mother owned a Jaguar X-type from 2002 or so. I once read a review of it (this one [automotive.com], I think) and they made exactly this point:

        There was a time not long ago when Jaguars were stunningly beautiful, fantastic driving cars that were known to be fragile and unreliable. Jaguars were sexy but leaked oil. Jaguars were luxurious and emotional, but their windows often failed to go up or down. Jaguars were invigorating to drive but could leave you stranded on a cold morning.

        This Jaguar, the X-Type, is the opposite of those great Jags of the past. This car trades those wonderful qualities that made Jaguars cars to lust after and has replaced them with the bland reliability that makes Toyotas cars to lust after....

        Maybe we'd like it better if it leaked.

  • by solevita (967690) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:11AM (#29299233)
    I thought that Colossus would take this title? Not only is it older and British, but it's also (I'm told) the World's oldest electronic computer [picotech.com].
  • For many of the younger generations of developers who don't know anything about these machines, it would be quite something to show them how the original developers used to work. It will also show how far we have advanced.

  • primitive pr0n (Score:3, Interesting)

    by syntap (242090) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:14AM (#29299279)

    We didn't think we were doing anything pioneering at the time

    Yeah, that's what the ASCII art inventors and the creators of GIF at CompuServ said.

  • by Desler (1608317)

    UK's Oldest Computer To Be "Rebooted"

    Although not the first computer built in the UK

    How could it be the UK's oldest computer if it wasn't the first computer built in the UK?

    • by glop (181086)

      Maybe the older ones are "dead"

    • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ciderVisor (1318765) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:20AM (#29299359)

      Oldest surviving computer, perhaps ?

    • Re:What? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Spad (470073) <slashdot@sp[ ]co.uk ['ad.' in gap]> on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:24AM (#29299415) Homepage

      It seems to be predated in the UK by at least ENIAC, EDSAC and Baby, though not by a long time.

      I can't find anything written about it that implies anything particularly special about it that would allow it to be "first" in a given area.

      • Re:What? (Score:4, Informative)

        by JasterBobaMereel (1102861) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @12:55PM (#29301309)

        It was built in 1951 and used for teaching until 1973, and then donated to a museum, it is the earliest surviving British computer

        All the earlier ones (Colossus, Manchester M1 etc.. ) were destroyed, dismantled, or lost, just like their American counterparts (ENIAC etc ..)

        The earlier ones you can see in museums are all only parts, or reconstructions, this is a complete and when restored potentially working computer

        • by pimpimpim (811140)

          > this is a complete and when restored potentially working computer

          You just gave a very correct description of the one-year-old 1000-node cluster I am now using at work :(

    • Because "One of UK's oldest" or "UK's second oldest" just aren't sexy enough for headlines.

    • The "older" computers have all been dismantled and the ones in museums are all replicas

      the Colossus MkI was upgraded to MkII
      All the MkII's were deliberately destroyed, except one, and that was thrown away by the secret services (who were using it)

      the Manchester M1's were all dismantled years ago.

      Nobody thinks heritage is important until it is old, and these early computers did not survive being obsolete long enough to get old and thought to be worth keeping, the ENIAC was for years thought to the the worlds

      • by hawk (1151)

        The older computer, of course, was the ABC, from which the ENIAC borrowed heavily and then patented! The patents were later found invalid, due to the ABC.

        Several pieces of the ABC remain at Iowa State. Once Atanasoff (A) and Berry (B) were done with it, it was cannibalized for other projects.

        Two replicas were built in the late 90's, one of which was actually run a few times.

        hawk

  • by casals (885017) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:20AM (#29299357)

    "[...] the device was capable of doing the work of six to ten people [...]"

    Interesting to see how it changes over time. Today, considering the majority of jobs, you either cut off social networking access or you'll need six to ten people to do the work of two or three.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      I know you are trying to be funny, but I was talking to some accounts about how computers ahve spead things up.

      We were remember where you would wait 90+ days for a new report, now it's a day, maybe.

      I mean, you would request a new report*, it would need to get approved, then several people would have to manually tabulate the date, then a typesetter would ahve to do a layout, then it would get a sample run, then approved, then supplies purchased and then it would get printed. The manually distributed to all t

  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @10:30AM (#29299467)

    There's the problem of deciding what's a real computer-- do you include things that can crunch numbers, but have a hard-wired program, or have a program, but it's on a loop of paper tape, or have a program, but it's wired onto a plugboard. The Harwell machine is programmable, but the program is on a loop of paper tape, making anything other than one simple loop very problematical.

    Also its data storage is in a few cold-cathode Dekatrons, which are basically overachieving neon lights. They limit the counting-up speed to about 20,000 increments per second, just barely in the electronic realm, and much slower than anything using real vacuum tubes. And it uses a lot of mechanical relays, further limiting its speed and making it a very marginal computer in any modern sense of the word.

    • by dylan_- (1661)

      Also its data storage is in a few cold-cathode Dekatrons, which are basically overachieving neon lights.

      I don't care. Cold-cathode Dekatrons are how everything should be stored!

      • WEll, I agree, they're cool looking. But to have your computing speed be limited by the de-ionization time of a gas is less than thrilling. You think a VAX-750 with ten users was slow.... :)

    • Given enough tape and enough time it is a universal Turing machine, so it can emulate any computer ... slowly ....

      Even ENIAC was a Turing machine and so could run anything ....it would be even slower and more cumbersome but could still run Linux!

      If you read the details then you will see that they left it running unattended over Christmas and the New year once and it did a lot of calculations in that time ... not just a "simple" loop ...

      Any machine that is Turing complete is a computer,

      • >Even ENIAC was a Turing machine and so could run anything ....

        Anything that has a conditional skip and subtract and some memory is Turing-capable.

        The original ENIAC was only slightly better than this. And yes it could do "anything", for very limited values of "anything", as it only had like twenty ten-digit accumulators for memory and plug-wired-only programs.

  • Turing (Score:2, Insightful)

    by FlyingBishop (1293238)

    Looking back, hardly any of us were computer literate and it's astonishing that we managed stored computing at all.

    Yeah, it's funny how that happens when you persecute your best people.

    I guess this was '49. But still. These guys are getting media attention while Turing rots in his grave.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ZosX (517789)

      He's in a grave. Is he not supposed to rot?

    • by igb (28052)
      I take it you're American? A little less hubris, please: how _is_ Robert J Oppenheimer's legacy looking?
  • It's cheaper!

    And besides, the red Chinese invented the computer 3,000 years ago.

  • From the summary:

    It first ran in 1951 and was designed to perform mathematical calculations.

    Is there any computer that was designed to do anything else?

    • Well, yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Thursday September 03, 2009 @11:33AM (#29300383)
      Most modern computers (by quantity) are basically communications devices. Although we have converted the processes of communication to mathematical operations, this is to fit in with the way a computer works. We manage to speak to one another without the use of mathematics. We do not see the function of a mobile phone or a netbook as being "to perform mathematical calculations".

      Early data processing machines (like Hollerith card analysers) were designed to perform select and sort operations which they did using logical functions, but they did not do calculations. You wanted to know who in a brigade had a particular skill, you fed in the punched cards for the brigade, and the output stack delivered the ones whose holes coincided with the setup. Colossus was intended to do code breaking by high speed (for the time) data processing, but it did not do general purpose calculation. So yes, this is a meaningful distinction.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        computers only add.

        Yes, that IS correct. Everything else is interpretation and applying the math.

        • In fact, as you should know, everything in the way of computer hardware can be constructed from either nor or nand gates. These have no concept of addition, only two logical operations (or/and plus negation. Although boolean algebra is conventionally included in mathematics, it is actually the core discovery of computer science. Building on that, every arithmetic operation can be carried out by a suitable combination of logical functions along with a storage element - which can be physically implemented usi
  • Micro$oft recently released Harwell OS 7, which uses all of the available registers to create a waving M$ flag using the Harwell's front panel lights. Unfortunately, it has since been determined that the new OS really requires two Harwell computers wired in a parallel configuration to perform adequately. The M$ product manager for the Harwell OS stated: "The hardware requirements on the side of the box clearly state that one Harwell computer is the MINIMUM requirement, not the optimum configuration."

  • Atomic program my ass... this mother fucker was used for hardcore mother fucking porn....

    Boot this bitch up and lets jack like its 1949.

  • How about the Difference Engine?

  • Soon someone will port Linux to it, as well as Doom. :)

    I heard that Vacuum tubes are rare to find and that Vacuum tube computers can be rewired to use Transistors instead when Vacuum tubes cannot be found.

  • Awesome news. I believe this computer used to belong to Wolverhampton University, however I have seen it in storage in Birmingham for years. Glad it is going back for restoration.

    • by igb (28052)
      I was in the warehouse for the Birmingham reserve collection last week. There's a lot of old computer iron: essentially most hardware Birmingham council had in the fifties and sixties. There's what appears to be most of a Ferranti Orion there, for example.
  • The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine [wikipedia.org], aka the "Baby" Manchester Mark I, ran its first program in 1948. A replica was built in 1998 to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

    It had 32 words of 32 bits each and used a Williams Tube [wikipedia.org] for memory.

    Opcode list:

    000 JMP S Jump to the instruction at the specified memory address (absolute unconditional jump)

    100 JRP S Jump to the instruction at the specified memory address plus the number in the accumulator (relative unconditional jump)

    010 LDN S

  • But does it run...Fortran?

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