Britain's oldest computer rebooted, first time in decades

According to the BBC's technology website, Britain's oldest computer, the Harwell, is being reported to be undergoing a reboot for the first time in decades. Plans are being made to transport it to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley where it is to be restored to working order.

The computer was originally built and used at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Construction started in 1949, and became operational in April 1951 and remained in use until 1957. The computer used dekatrons for volatile memory (similar to RAM in a modern computer) and paper tape for both input and program storage. Its purpose was to perform mathematical equations. Gargantuan in size compared to our greatly powerful modern day equivalents, the computer stands at 2.4m x 5m.

Built by a small 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. One of the designers who helped build the Harwell computer, told the BBC the research was officially "for civilian nuclear power projects."

"Officially it was to help with general background atomic theory and to assist in the development of civilian power," he said. Of course, it [the Atomic Energy Research Establishment] had connections to the nuclear weapons programme," he added."

Although having quite a short service to the nation, the computer continued to be a popular piece of technology, if only as a prize. Retired from service at Harwell, the system was offered as a prize for colleges, with Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (later Wolverhampton University) taking ownership and renaming it as the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell). It was used in computer education until 1973.

Since then, the computer has been on display inside Birmingham's Science Museum but more recently retired into storage at Birmingham City Council Museums' Collection Center. There have been some important predecessors to the Harwell - for example the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) and the commonly nicknamed 'baby' (Manchester's Small-Scale Experimental Machine ) which has also been rebuilt, but not using original parts.

Report a problem with article
Previous Story

AT&T to release iPhone MMS on September 25

Next Story

Nintendo plans staying the same despite hardware price cuts

49 Comments

Commenting is disabled on this article.

Oh my how we have come a long way since then, I bet the boffins of those days didn't think it would have evolved into what we have today. Microsochips doing calculations in realtime, processors being able to do calculations faster than the human brain, and these are installed in you home computer.


Click her to see it in action

How many times have we heard that there is a computer somewhere that hasn't been rebooted in 20 years, only to hear that it is just a cheap jibe at Microsoft's propensity to require re-boots due to configuration changes or updates.

This story will turn out to be as misleading as all the others I've read about... Servers that have never been re-booted in decades.

"Restored to working order" implies that it wasn't turned on in the first place, so isn't this just a "boot" and not a "reboot"?

I hate to admit it, but I worked on similiar (tape date) equipment in the army and they are incredibly fussy machines. Moving to digital was a HUGE LEAP from this stuff in almost every regard. But as someone said before, it would take a huge effort to rebuild, but what's the point. If the rebuild uses different components than the original, where's the historical value? With no historical value, it's just a bunch of guys with toys showing off ...

robyholmes said,
Get this thing folding! It would make at-least 2 points a year!

the folding screensaver would be too much for it lul

Neoauld said,
the folding screensaver would be too much for it lul


any screensaver would be too much code...lol...that and it doesn't have a screen...just a ticker tape output...


yes it is a waste of good electrical power....

plus....is there anyone ALIVE who can still use/program it (must be a dead language/instructions knowledge) or are they just booting it up and pretending it's working by the sound or screen output. haha

.Kompressor said,
yes it is a waste of good electrical power....

plus....is there anyone ALIVE who can still use/program it (must be a dead language/instructions knowledge) or are they just booting it up and pretending it's working by the sound or screen output. haha


it doesn't have a screen

.Kompressor said,
plus....is there anyone ALIVE who can still use/program it (must be a dead language/instructions knowledge)

I'm sure by 1949 they had thought of writing stuff down :P

insane ... is nice to hear about these things today ... is amazing how much we have evolved and yet we still whine about computer running slow ....

So the title is actually incorrect. It's not being rebooted, which would mean it is "currently running and has to be re-started" but rather is being "booted" for the first time in decades.

What will the computer be doing once re-started? HTTP server explaining itself? Running a small "Blinkenlights" display? Obviously it won't be running "Rogue" or "Sail" (ever try to paper tape in commands for those games? me neither)... and I'm fairly sure graphics aren't going to be that great either- imagine 6-10 people (that's the number of people it replaced) running around with pencils and erasers.

Maybe it will join the grid and contribute that last little bit of proof to the anthropogenic global warming theory... yeah, maybe....

Otherwise, great news and a tremendous waste of electricity.

(the above is meant as humor and infers a realistic question about the how's and why's we do some of the things we do)

AUSSIE_FLOYD_FAN said,
erm 40-50 years?

PRE MIcrisoft operationg system for the long haul

The word reboot in this context is extremely misleading -- it hasn't actually been powered on that long. The reboot they are talking about is more like a rebuild -- it's just a misnomer from typical non-technical news sources... I'm a little disappointed Neowin didn't pick it up.

omni said,
The word reboot in this context is extremely misleading -- it hasn't actually been powered on that long. The reboot they are talking about is more like a rebuild -- it's just a misnomer from typical non-technical news sources... I'm a little disappointed Neowin didn't pick it up.


Agreed. I was thinking exactly the same thing. The first thought that came to mind is how reliable their power is to not have even an accidental reboot in decades! UPS or not. Then come to find out it's not "reboot" it should be titled "Oldest computer BOOTED for first time in decades".

On a side note, I hope they don't find out the oldest computer has the oldest virus that's going to unleash armageddon with the most diabolical evil viral code that no AV can protect against bringing the world's computer systems to the ground. BWAH-HA-HA-HA!!!!

Computers in those days were built from individual components, not the cards, etc. used in modern computers. Imagine soldering together the millions of individual transistors that would make up a typical CPU. It would take ages.