British museum aims to revive 1951 computer

It’s probably a safe bet that many GeeksAreSexy readers have brought an old computer back from the dead at some point. But a museum in Britain is trying to do it with a 58-year-old machine.

If the plan comes off, the Harwell computer will become the oldest working electronic computer in the world. Staff at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, a site best known for its work cracking the encryptions of the German Enigma machine during the second world war, are hoping to raise £112,500 (around US$180,000) to fund the restoration.

Unlike today’s machines, Harwell wasn’t designed for speed; one test found a human with a calculator could initially keep pace with the computer. The advantage of the machine was that it could keep that pace continuously without mistakes (unlike humans, it didn’t get bored), at one stage running for 10 days.

Instead of memory chips, the computer used 900 gas-filled tubes, each of which represented either a one or a zero. That gave it a memory equivalent to 112.5 bytes (one eighth of a kilobyte). Rather than a hard drive, it stored information on a paper tape, which was also how instructions were inputted.

The machine was built for the Atomic Energy Research Establishment but later used as a teaching tool in a college before going into a local museum in 1973. It’s spent most of the past three decades in storage but has been kept in relatively good condition.

According to the museum, the oldest currently functioning computer was built in 1956, though older models have been rebuilt with modern parts. The plan is to restore the Harwell machine using original spare parts which staff have managed to track down.

To fund the restoration, the museum is looking for 25 companies or wealthy individuals to pay £4,500 ($7,300) each as sponsors. The restoration is expected to take around a year, during which the machine will be on public display wherever possible.

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9 Responses to British museum aims to revive 1951 computer

  1. When I was reading the beginning of the article, I was thinking I'd throw 'em a few bucks. Then, I got to the bottom and saw that they only want large contributors. OK, and as they used to say at Burger King, have it your way. Too bad that they don't have a PayPal box or something. I'm sure lots of folks with kindred interests, such as geeksaresexy folks, and others of our kind would have loved to forgo a couple of pints and contribute to their cause, just to say that we did. Oh, well. So be it. I wish 'em luck. Keep us posted on how the efforts go, won't ya?

  2. When I was reading the beginning of the article, I was thinking I’d throw ’em a few bucks. Then, I got to the bottom and saw that they only want large contributors. OK, and as they used to say at Burger King, have it your way. Too bad that they don’t have a PayPal box or something. I’m sure lots of folks with kindred interests, such as geeksaresexy folks, and others of our kind would have loved to forgo a couple of pints and contribute to their cause, just to say that we did. Oh, well. So be it. I wish ’em luck. Keep us posted on how the efforts go, won’t ya?

  3. Just have 10 of the biggest tech companies in the US pony up $18,000 a piece. Google, HP, Dell, Cisco, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon? I mean, that $18,000 is like, 5 minutes' worth of annual profit for those guys, isn't it? And don't they all owe their existence to the likes of this thing?

  4. Just have 10 of the biggest tech companies in the US pony up $18,000 a piece. Google, HP, Dell, Cisco, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon? I mean, that $18,000 is like, 5 minutes’ worth of annual profit for those guys, isn’t it? And don’t they all owe their existence to the likes of this thing?

  5. 10 days without a reboot? Sounds better than most computers nowadays :-p

    @GadgetNut: I agree. I always contribute a little bit of money to things like that when I can. But they won't have trouble finding 25 people with $4,500, so that's probably easier for them than opening it to the public. I bet they've already found them.

    @Chris: Why would rival companies work together? Yes, it's for the good of preserving technology, but business is still at stake. In this today's world, as much as I'd like to see them work together, they won't.

  6. 10 days without a reboot? Sounds better than most computers nowadays :-p

    @GadgetNut: I agree. I always contribute a little bit of money to things like that when I can. But they won’t have trouble finding 25 people with $4,500, so that’s probably easier for them than opening it to the public. I bet they’ve already found them.

    @Chris: Why would rival companies work together? Yes, it’s for the good of preserving technology, but business is still at stake. In this today’s world, as much as I’d like to see them work together, they won’t.