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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.

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