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World’s Oldest Computer, “The Witch” Harwell, gets a reboot

The Harwell computer, later known as the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell (WITCH), or the Harwell Dekatron Computer is turned back on after 61 years.

With buttons, levers and flashing lights, this looks like a computer control room. It is, however, just the computer. The Harwell Dekatron weighs 2.5 tons, as heavy as 20,000 iPhones, contains 10,000 moving parts and can work without a break for 80 hours a week.

When it was built between 1949 and 1951, this computer was a marvel of technology, and for its time it was highly impressive!

“The Witch” was activated in 1951 and was used first by scientists as part of Great Britain’s atomic research initiative. Then the large computer was transferred to Wolverhampton University, where its current name was chosen: Witch for Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell. Eventually, a donation occurred, in 1973, to the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham. It was on show there for 24 years, until 1997,  when the museum was closed, and the Witch was dismantled and put in storage, where it stayed until a few years ago, when Murrell found it while he was looking for parts.

Since late 2009, a TNMOC (The National Museum Of Computing) , team of volunteers, including Delwyn Holroyd, Johan Iversen, Eddie Washington and Tony Frazer, has been using its ingenuity and re-engineering skills to restore this record-breaking computer. The restoration of the Harwell Dekatron was undertaken by a dedicated team of mechanical engineers at Bletchley Park, the site of the main UK decryption center during the Second World War. Delwyn Holroyd, who led the conservation effort, said that the machine was “pretty dirty” when it arrived at the site, but its years of being locked in a storeroom had ensured that it had suffered little physical damage.

He also 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!

It’s important for us to have a machine like this back in working order as it gives us an understanding of the state of technology in the late 1940s in Britain,” said Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the museum, adding “In 1951, the Harwell Dekatron was one of perhaps a dozen computers in the world, and since then, it has led a charmed life surviving intact while its contemporaries were recycled or destroyed.”

To see it in action, watch the video  below:

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4 Comments on “World’s Oldest Computer, “The Witch” Harwell, gets a reboot”

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