World's oldest functioning digital computer, returns to display after being restored

Computers in the 1950s bear no resemblance to the computers we have today, but they're unique beasts and important historic relics. Britain's "Witch" was believed lost, but a chance occurrance rediscovered the world's oldest working digital computer after fifteen years of isolation.

The Witch is a nickname the machine gained, but it might be better described as a leviathan. It weighs more than some cars, clocking in at a hefty two and a half tonnes. Production of this beast began in 1949, and it worked as the heart of Britain's atomic energy research programme.

The Witch, more correctly called the Harwell Dekatron, wasn't exactly fast. Multiplying two numbers could take it up to ten seconds, but it was reliable at least. By 1957, smaller machines were outstripping the Dekatron (and weighing less too, we'd hope).

After it had been annihilated by newer brothers, it was donated to the modern day Wolverhampton University. Here was where it took on the name of "Witch": Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell. It became a museum piece until 1997, where it was put into storage - which turned out to be a municipal store room.

In 2009, restoration of this unique lump of late-1940s culture began. After three years of hard work the Computer Conservation Society, who were responsible for the work, can take pride in what they have accomplished. The Harwell Dekatron is on show in Bletchley Park - infamous for being the home of the British code-breakers during WWII - on November 20.

Source: BBC | Image: Wikimedia

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I love the work Bletchley do both for computing and for the code breaking side.

The place is well worth a visit as you never know what oddities they may uncover.
Speaking to one of the guys there a few years ago they get stuff thats been discovered/stored in peoples sheds that are part of computing history.
I also remember at the time they had a mainframe that they were working on and they had an engineer from Russia helping them to restore it as it was so old nobody knew how it worked properly but they still had a working one in Russia so this guy new lots. They had trouble working out what was wrong though as one of the diagnostic LEDs was broken, they discovered this fact after a while and fixed it making things a bit easier

Few tidbits;

clock; 100Hz
Memory; 7.2 Kb (yes, that is bits, not Bytes)
Input; Punch tape
Output; printer, takes about 4 seconds to print a character
Power requirements; about 1.5KW
Weight; 2.5 Tons
dimensions; 2x1x6 m

aionaddict said,
where is the display?
The display in those days were either a series of beeps, lights, or a tape printout of code that would be read.

Not sure if it's in the article but on the video, I saw it didn't function in binary, it has a decimal system instead.

Could it somehow be programmed for? Or does it not work that way? I wonder if it could at LEAST be able to display at least 1 screenshot from a DOS game.

Izlude said,
Could it somehow be programmed for? Or does it not work that way? I wonder if it could at LEAST be able to display at least 1 screenshot from a DOS game.

im sure we could get linux running on it.

THE_OBSERVER said,

im sure we could get linux running on it.

You couldn't get DOS, or Linux, or even something like Notepad to run on it. It's not a "computer" in the sense that you're familiar with computers.

It's really just a calculator. It's memory is 90 numbers, as in literally it can only hold 90 digits in memory at any one time. It takes ten seconds to multiply two numbers. Programs are fed to it via paper tape that has to be punched by hand.

It's not going to run Pong.

I grew up in Wolverhampton and went to the University of Wolverhampton (before transferring to a better uni.) and I didn't know about this machine!

Of course it can. The 1957 version of crysis consisted of a single dot moving on an oscilloscope screen.

No bad guys. No blood. No shooting. Only pure joy in its truer nature.

Actually this is the worlds oldest functioning DIGITAL computer. The oldest functioning computer is Colossus, developed during the second world war to break the Enigma code and is also on display at Bletchley Park.

neo158 said,
Actually this is the worlds oldest functioning DIGITAL computer. The oldest functioning computer is Colossus, developed during the second world war to break the Enigma code and is also on display at Bletchley Park.

Good catch mate! I had that in the body of the article but missed it in the headline. Corrected!

"Computers in the 1950s bear no resemblance to the computers we have today"
I vaguely remember HP saying they were reinvestigating the memristor?