Harwell Dekatron team go viral as Witch computer enters Guinness World Record books

By Culture24 Reporter | 30 January 2013

Forty years ago, the Harwell Dekatron was deemed the world’s most durable computer. Better known as the WITCH, it now has another title to process: Guiness World Records have declared it the oldest original working digital computer on earth.

Having undergone a lengthy restoration by a spirited band of volunteers, the machine was rebooted last November at The National Museum of Computing, which has released a 21-minute video featuring two of the original brains behind the bytes: the recently-deceased Ted Cooke-Yarborough and Dick Barnes.

Bart Fossey, an early user of the computer at Harwell during the 1950s, accompanies them alongside Peter Barden, who used it in Wolverhampton a decade later. Fossey has re-enacted his “race” against the machine with a hand calculator.

“To have the historic reboot captured on video for posterity is fantastic,” says Kevin Murrell, a museum trustee who began the recovery of the Dekatron.

“It is proving a hugely popular attraction and invaluable in teaching our stream of educational groups about their computing heritage.

“We were extraordinarily lucky to have two of the designers and two of the early users present to recall their memories of those very early days of computing.”

Even Google, who sponsored the video, might have been surprised at the response to the clip. The original reboot footage went viral, enticing more than a million views.

“The reboot was covered by national newspapers and broadcasters across the world,” says Delwyn Holroyd, the restoration team leader.

“It took three years of dedicated work by volunteers to restore it, and although we realised its importance and significance, we have been overwhelmed by the global interest in the machine.”

First operated in 1951, the Dekatron spent 12 years at Birmingham Collections Centre before moving to the museum in 2009. The flashes and relays lighting up its wall-sized body are on permanent public display in Bletchley.
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