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The WITCH is Back PDF Print E-mail

DEKATRON

Of course, if you're a computer historian, you already know that WITCH refers to the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell.

Over 60 years since the first digital computers switched on, the chances of seeing one of these pioneers in action have grown incredibly slim as time (and recycling) takes its toll. Take a visit to Britain's National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, however, and you'll see one working. A finished 3-year restoration effort lets the Harwell Dekatron -- at one point renamed the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell, or WITCH -- claim the title of the world's oldest functional digital computer still using its original design. Aside from its room-filling dimensions, the 1951-era mainframe may be worth the trip just for recalling a time when there were no hard and fast rules in computing: the Dekatron operates in its namesake decimal system, not binary, and puts most of its components on full display. The computer is part of the regular exhibit lineup and should be easy to see; the daunting part may be realizing that virtually any chip in a 2012 smartphone could outmuscle the Dekatron without breaking a sweat.

The 2.5-ton machine, first constructed in the 1950s as the workhorse of the UK's atomic energy research program, became the "world's oldest original working digital computer" after a museum in the UK restored and then rebooted it on Tuesday. Unlike today's nearly mute devices, the massive computer clicks, clacks and flashes like something out of an old sci-fi movie.

"In 1951 the Harwell Dekatron (the other, less-amazing name for the WITCH) was one of perhaps a dozen computers in the world, and since then it has led a charmed life surviving intact while its contemporaries were recycled or destroyed," Kevin Murrell, a trustee at the UK's National Museum of Computing, said in a news release.

Design and construction work on the machine began in 1949 and it was built to aid scientists working at the UK's Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire. The 2.5 tonne machine was created to ease the burden on scientists by doing electronically the calculations that previously were done using adding machines.

The machine first ran in 1951 and was known as the Harwell Dekatron - so named for the valves it used as a memory store. Although slow - the machine took up to 10 seconds to multiply two numbers - it proved very reliable and often cranked up 80 hours of running time in a week.  

The computer outlived its usefulness in atomic research by 1957.  Outpaced by faster, smaller computers, it was handed over to the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (more recently Wolverhampton University) where it was used to teach programming and began to be called the WITCH.  In 1973 it was donated to Birmingham's Museum of Science and Industry and was on show for 24 years until 1997 when the museum closed and the machine was dismantled and put into storage.


Cleaning it Up

Kevin Murrell who discovered the computer explains how it was brought back to life.  The world's oldest original working digital computer is going on display at The National Museum of Computing in Buckinghamshire. The machine has been restored to clattering and flashing life in a three-year effort. By chance Kevin Murrell, one of the TNMOC's trustees, spotted the control panel of the Witch in a photograph taken by another computer conservationist who had been in the municipal store seeking components for a different machine.

Mr Murrell said that as a "geeky teenager" he had regularly seen the Witch during many trips to the museum and instantly recognised its parts in the background of the photograph.

On subsequent trips to the storage facility the various parts of the Witch were found, retrieved and then taken to the museum at Bletchley where restoration began.

The restoration effort was led by conservationist Delwyn Holroyd who said it was "pretty dirty" when the machine first arrived at Bletchley. Remarkably, he said, it had not suffered too much physical damage and the restoration team has been at pains to replace as little as possible. The vast majority of the parts on the machine, including its 480 relays and 828 Dekatron tubes, are entirely original, he said.

Said Mr Murrell: "It's important for us to have a machine like this back in working order as it gives us an understanding of the state of technology in the late 1940s in Britain."


Operation

The computer's "flashing lights and clattering printers and readers provides an awe-inspiring display for visiting school groups and the general public keen to learn about our rich computer heritage," the museum says.  

It's also a healthy reminder that not all gadgets have to die after a single product cycle. At a time when iPhones are swapped out every 12 months, the TI-83 calculator and this computer are among the only pieces of technological machinery that have survived for decades.  

The WITCH, however, doesn't serve much of a practical purpose at this point.  "All together, the machine can store 90 numbers. The closest analogy is a man with a pocket calculator," Delwyn Holroyd, who led the restoration effort, tells the BBC in a video about the restoration (you should watch the video, by the way, if for no other reason that to see this thing in action; it sounds like a broken typewriter as it works). "However, unlike the man with a pocket calculator, this machine can carry on day and night, and it doesn't make mistakes."  

Modern computers store information in binary code, or a system of 1s and 0s. The WITCH, by contrast, features walls of dekatron valves, which are little light-bulb-looking things. It counts on a 10-digit decimal system.  

"All told, the WITCH had 40 banks of 8 dekatrons, meaning it could store up to 40 8-digit numbers," Sebastian Anthony writes for the website ExtremeTech. "The computational processes themselves, carried out by relays, was very slow -- somewhere on the order of 5 or 10 seconds to multiply two numbers."  

Another drawback: The WITCH reads computer programs from paper tape with holes punched in it. The computer "doesn't have a keyboard or a monitor like a modern machine," Holroyd explains in an ITV video.  

Perhaps the machine is so mesmerizing because, in a way, you can see how it works. Modern computers -- much less the Internet or smartphones -- are largely silent, glowing devices. They seem powered by wizardry. The WITCH, by contrast, is a clacking, blinking, ticking mess of mechanical parts.  

"To see it in action is to watch the inner workings of a computer -- something that is impossible on the machines of today," Murrell, from the museum, says in the news release. "The restoration has been in full public view and even before it was working again the interest from the public was enormous."  

If you want to see the machine for yourself, it's on display at the National Museum of Computing in Buckinghamshire, north of London. It's located on the Bletchley Park estate, which was home to England's codebreakers during World War II.

harwell-dekatron


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Last Updated on Saturday, 26 January 2013 23:50
 

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