Former students to visit new home of world’s oldest computer

WITCHStudents who used the world’s oldest computer during their time at the University of Wolverhampton are being invited on a special visit to its new home at The National Museum of Computing.

In 1957, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College won a competition to house the Harwell Dekatron computer, and renamed it the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell).

It was used by the College, now the University, in computer education until 1973.

Now former students who used the WITCH during their time at Wolverhampton are being sought for a special visit to its new home in The National Museum of Computing on the historic Bletchley Park.

The date of the visit is yet to be decided, but it is hoped people who used the WITCH between 1957 and 1973 will contact the University to find out more.

After leaving Wolverhampton, the WITCH went on display at the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. When that museum closed it was put into storage until it was re-discovered in 2008 by the National Museum of Computing, where it has been restored to full working order over the past three years.

It was rebooted in November, and among those present were graduates of the Technical College, including Peter Burden, who also worked as a computer lecturer and featured in a famous picture of the WITCH in action.

He said: “The restoration of the WITCH is a tribute to the skill of the original designers, the dedication of those that have cared for the machine over the years and the perseverance of the restoration team.

“As a schoolboy in 1961 it was an extraordinary privilege to be allowed to program a computer for a day a week. In 2012 it was an equally extraordinary privilege to see the same machine brought back to active service and to meet some of the original designers.”

Dr Mary Garvey, from the University’s School of Technology, is the Chair of the Wolverhampton branch of the British Computer Society and helped to put Peter Burden in contact with the restoration team. She also attended the reboot.

She said: “The WITCH is a really important part of the University’s and the city’s history, but it also has a significant place in the history of technology.

“We’re keen to hear from any former students who used the WITCH so we can organise a visit to The National Museum of Computing, as it is really impressive to see the machine back in action after all this time.”

The visit is being organised by kind permission of The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC).

Former students can contact Vickie Warren in the Media and Communications Office: pressoffice@wlv.ac.uk or 01902 32 2736.

WITCH background

The WITCH is now the world's oldest original working digital computer.

The 2.5 tonne, 1951 computer from Harwell features 828 flashing Dekatron valves, 480 relays and a bank of paper tape readers.

Kevin Murrell, trustee of TNMOC initiated the restoration project, explains: "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.”

The Harwell Dekatron computer first ran at Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment in 1951 where it automated the tedious calculations performed by talented young people using mechanical hand calculators. Designed for reliability rather than speed, it could carry on relentlessly for days at a time delivering its error-free results. It wasn't even binary, but worked in decimal -- a feature that is beautifully displayed by its flashing Dekatron valves.

By 1957, the computer had become redundant at Harwell, but an imaginative scientist at the atomic establishment arranged a competition to offer it to the educational establishment putting up the best case for its continued use. Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (now the University of Wolverhampon) won, renamed it the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell) and used it in computer education until 1973.

After a period on display in the former Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry, it was dismantled and put into storage, but "rediscovered" by a team of volunteers from The National Museum of Computing in 2008. With the blessing of the Birmingham museum and in conjunction with the Computer Conservation Society, the team developed a plan to restore the machine and to put it once again to educational use at TNMOC.

For further details, visit the TNMOC website: http://www.tnmoc.org/news/news-releases/worlds-oldest-original-working-digital-computer

ENDS

For more information please contact Vickie Warren in the Media Relations Office on 01902 322736

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