The computer that was built in 1949 for the purpose of formulating mathematical calculations has been brought back to life after 15 years of dormancy. The oldest digital computer in the world – Harwell Dekatron or Witch will be unveiled at the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) in Buckinghamshire in working condition.
The machine that was used for performing the tedious but essential task of performing mathematical calculations was originally based at the UK’s Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment. It started its operation cycle there in 1951. The machine was the workhorse of the UK’s atomic energy research programme.
The oldest digital computer could work out equations involving division at a rate of 15 seconds, multiplication at five seconds, while subtraction and addition at another couple of seconds. The machine wasn’t fast but it was accurate!
It operated on 828 Dekatron valves that displayed its decimal output, six paper tape readers and 480 GPO 3000 type relays. Harwell Dekatron worked well for many years until 1997 where it was finally placed in storage. Then, just 4 years ago, it was rediscovered by the TNMOC trustee Kevin Murrell in a municipal storeroom where it had been languishing for 15 years.
The restoration process was quite a challenge for the trustee as many of the components needed to get Harwell Dekatron back in working mode were no longer available. However, after 3 years of hard-work the machine was restored back in fully functional form, reports BBC.
TNMOC lead volunteer, Delwyn Holroyd said, “The restoration was quite a challenge requiring work with components like valves, relays and paper tape readers that are rarely seen these days and are certainly not found in modern computers. Older members of the team had to brush up on old skills while younger members had to learn from scratch.”
Harwell Dekatron or Witch weighs over 2 and a half tons and comes from an era where only a handful of supercomputers were available in the world.