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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