National Museum of Computing in appeal to restore world's oldest functioning calculator

By Culture24 Staff | 07 September 2009
A black and white picture of a man inspecting an early computing system

(Above) Mr BFH Coleman, lecturer in charge of digital computing at Wolverhampton College of Technology, checks a punched tape for the 1950s WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell) computer in 1964. Courtesy Wolverhampton Express and Star

The National Museum of Computing has launched a public appeal in a bid to raise £112,500 to resurrect the oldest functioning electronic memory program in the world.

The Harwell system, later known as the WITCH computer, was created in 1949 in an attempt to wipe out mistakes being made by a team of young graduates bored with using electronic calculators.

It moved to the Museum's Bletchley Park home last week in the first stage of a year-long restoration challenge, and visitors and organisations are being invited to buy one of 25 shares available, costing £4,500 each.

"The TNMOC team of engineers are eager to start the work," said Director and Trustee Kevin Murrell, who has persuaded business software designers Insight Software to snap up the first share.

"They have proved their skills, perseverance and sheer ingenuity in many projects and for most of them this will be the toughest project yet. It's the computing equivalent of the raising of the Mary Rose."

A black and white picture of an antiquated computer system

Members of the public and industry groups can invest in the system through the purchase of shares

After spending six years at Harwell, the computer was won in a competition by Wolverhampton University, where it was used for education purposes until 1973.

It was briefly displayed at Birmingham Science Museum, until being disassembled and stored at Birmingham City Council Museums' Collection Centre.

"The machine was a relay-based computer using 900 Dekatron gas-filled tubes which could each hold a single digit in memory," explained Murrell, calling it "the tortoise in the tortoise and hare fable."

"In a race with a human mathematician using a mechanical calculator, the human kept pace for 30 minutes, but then had to retire exhausted as the machine carried on remorselessly.

"The machine once ran for 10 days unattended over a Christmas and New Year holiday period."

If their scheme succeeds, the Harwell will be housed alongside the rebuild of Colossus Mk II, the world's first electronic computer.

The current earliest functioning computer is the 1956 Pegasus machine at The Science Museum in London.

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