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World's oldest digital computer restored to life at age 60

By

November 29, 2012

The Harwell computer as it appeared shortly after arrival at the National Museum of Comput...

The Harwell computer as it appeared shortly after arrival at the National Museum of Computing (Photo: National Museum of Computing)

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The Harwell Dekatron computer is a 1950s computer having roughly the weight and size of a Hummer H3 and the computing power of a four-function pocket calculator. Having been restored to its original operating condition using 95 percent original parts, it is now the oldest functioning programmable digital computer in the world. Guinness might have been onto something, when, in 1973, they named the Dekatron the Most Durable Computer in the World.

The Harwell computer was built in the early 1950s for the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Never intended to be a state-of-the-art general-purpose computer, the Harwell was developed to perform simple but repetitive calculations continuously and without error. Its computational rate is about 0.1 FLOPS, similar to that of a pocket calculator, but the computer operates for long periods of time without human intervention.

The Harwell computer in use at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (Photo: National M...

The Harwell computer in use at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (Photo: National Museum of Computing)

The computational needs of the Establishment soon outstripped the Harwell, and in 1957 Wolverhampton University was offered the machine to train students about computing. The Harwell was relaunched as the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), and helped a generation of students learn about computing. But by 1974, Wolverhampton decided that the WITCH was obsolete. They donated the computer to the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham, where it was on display until the museum closed in 1997.

Then, once again evading disposal, the computer was disassembled and stored in the Birmingham City Council Museums Collection Centre. Rediscovered quite by accident in 2008 by Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the National Museum of Computing, it was moved to its current home at that museum, where it's been restored to full functionality.

Banks of logic relays within the Harwell computer (Photo: National Museum of Computing)

Banks of logic relays within the Harwell computer (Photo: National Museum of Computing)

Conservationist Delwyn Holroyd led the restoration effort. He commented that the machine was "pretty dirty" when arrived at its new home. That's no idle complaint when one considers the logic operations of the Harwell are carried out by a circuit with 480 telephone exchange relays possessing over 7000 contacts, any of which can be disrupted by a speck of dust.

The operations of the arithmetic unit and the RAM storage (90 eight-digit plus sign decimal digits – about 340 bytes) of the Harwell are largely carried out by a set of 828 dekatron tubes. An additional double-length word is used as an accumulator in multiplication and division.

One of the dekatron tubes on the Harwell computer (Photo: Bad germ)

One of the dekatron tubes on the Harwell computer (Photo: Bad germ)

A dekatron was the simplest base-10 counter able to add and subtract while generating carry digits. Common dekatrons were based on decimal counting, and could switch reliably at speeds in excess of 10 kHz. Dekatrons are triggered to consecutively light a set of ten positions in a cold-cathode tube.

The paper tape readers that provide the Harwell computer with program instructions and dat...

The paper tape readers that provide the Harwell computer with program instructions and data (Photo: Bad germ)

Input of programs and data are carried out by a pair of paper tape readers, and output is either through a printer or a paper tape punch.The paper tape readers of the day were rather rough on paper tape, so programs intended for multiple reuse had to be made of linen rather than paper.

Although the days of the Harwell computer as an active participant in science and engineering are long over, it stands as a rare and inspiring example of the enormous rate of change that characterizes our modern era.

Source: The National Museum of Computing

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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6 Comments

We should not forget where we come from

Bigbrother Iswatchingu
30th November, 2012 @ 02:31 am PST

Computers have come a long way.

James Galan
30th November, 2012 @ 05:08 pm PST

They were noisy. Deafening almost.

nutcase
30th November, 2012 @ 11:32 pm PST

60 years later and we can put this kind of computing power in disposable contact lenses.

If only we could imaging what will be possible 60 years from now.

Tony Smale
1st December, 2012 @ 01:05 am PST

So, what, we're looking at under 100 FLOPS with this thing? Now we measure computer performance in trillions and zillions of floating point operations per second. I'm not even sure this thing does floating point operations at all.

So, ya, we've come quite a ways. A $0.50 calculator has more computing power than this thing. Amazing.

Stradric
3rd December, 2012 @ 12:01 pm PST

So much progress.... fantastic. Now if we can just produce peace as quickly.

Mark A
18th October, 2013 @ 09:45 pm PDT
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