Watch the World’s Oldest Working Digital Computer — the 1951 Harwell Dekatron — Get Fired Up Again

The next time you feel frus­trat­ed with your aging per­son­al com­put­er, just watch the video above. In these fifty sec­onds, the Nation­al Muse­um of Com­put­ing fires up the Har­well Deka­tron, also known as the Wolver­hamp­ton Instru­ment for Teach­ing Com­pu­ta­tion — or, nat­u­ral­ly, the WITCH. Hold­er of the title of the world’s old­est work­ing orig­i­nal dig­i­tal com­put­er, the WITCH, first built in 1951, went into retire­ment from Wolver­hamp­ton’s Stafford­shire Tech­ni­cal Col­lege in 1973. A three-year restora­tion of the com­put­er — all two-and-a-half tons, 828 flash­ing Deka­tron valves, and 480 relays of it — began in 2008. Now, hav­ing just fin­ished return­ing the machine to tip-top shape, they’ve actu­al­ly boot­ed it up, as you can see. “In 1951 the Har­well Deka­tron was one of per­haps a dozen com­put­ers in the world,” The Nation­al Muse­um of Com­put­ing’s press release quotes its trustee Kevin Mur­rell as say­ing, “and since then it has led a charmed life sur­viv­ing intact while its con­tem­po­raries were recy­cled or destroyed.”

The Har­well Atom­ic Ener­gy Research Estab­lish­ment pro­vid­ed the Deka­tron its first tasks, crank­ing out cal­cu­la­tions for­mer­ly done by hand. When it passed into obso­les­cence there in 1957, Stafford­shire Tech­ni­cal Col­lege took the mas­sive com­put­er off Har­well’s hands, and there it became the WITCH, used for teach­ing pur­pos­es over the next six­teen years. When it out­lived even its edu­ca­tion­al use, the WITCH went on dis­play at the Birm­ing­ham Muse­um of Sci­ence and Indus­try, and final­ly to dis­man­tle­ment and stor­age. Now it offers a whirring, clat­ter­ing, flash­ing, retro-tech­no­log­i­cal spec­ta­cle to new gen­er­a­tions of com­put­er enthu­si­asts. Some of them may be shocked to learn that, by virtue of sheer age, it does­n’t adhere to some of the very qual­i­ties of dig­i­tal com­put­ing they take for grant­ed: it does­n’t cal­cu­late in bina­ry code, but dec­i­mal code, hence the name “Deka­tron.” Though its prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions would seem lim­it­ed in the mod­ern world, rest assured that some young hob­by­ist is even now pon­der­ing how to get the thing onto the web.

h/t: Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Short His­to­ry of Roman­ian Com­put­ing: From 1961 to 1989

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Rodolfo says:

    The first com­put­ers were the Z1, Z2, and the Z3 build between 1936 and 1946 by the ger­man cien­tif­ic Kon­rad Zuse …

  • tahrey says:

    Yes, but it’s the old­est SURVIVING, ORIGINAL dig­i­tal com­put­er. As in one that was actu­al­ly built in 1951, has­n’t been sig­nif­i­cant­ly mod­i­fied or rebuilt from plans and new parts, and still works. Most machines of sim­i­lar and all machines of old­er vin­tage are actu­al­ly repli­cas. EG the Colos­sus — the orig­i­nal ones were bro­ken up and sev­er­al major cir­cuits had to be remade from scratch.

    I won­der if they can make it do some­thing more use­ful than print­ing a load of 9s, though? Even if it’s just cal­cu­lat­ing and print­ing Pi or some Log tables?

    And it’s unlike­ly to ever go online, but I bet it could be emu­lat­ed in flash quite eas­i­ly…

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