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EDSAC computer to be rebuilt at Bletchley Park

by Sarah Griffiths on 13 January 2011, 14:53

Tags: Bletchley Park

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EDSAC effort

One of the first ‘modern' computers created by clever chaps at Cambridge University in the late 40s is to be re-built at Bletchley Park.

The UK's Computer Conservation Society (CCS) has commissioned a copy of  EDSAC, short for the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, which first ran in 1949 and was the size of a room.

The CCS hopes the project will engage British public with its computer heritage and inspire future students of engineering and computing as well as recognise the efforts of EDSAC's creators.

It will take between 3 and 4 years to re-build the mechanical monster and excitingly the work will be done in full display of the public at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. It is being bankrolled by a consortium led by computer entrepreneur Hermann Hauser.

In a bid to make the replica machine as authentic as possible, the team will stay true to the technology available at the time. Occupying an area of 20 square metres the EDSAC original had over 3,000 electronic tubes used for logic, mercury-filled tubes for memory data input via paper tape and output on a teleprinter.

Unfortunately the mercury tubes will not be recreated because of modern health and safety rules but will be substituted with a similar delay line storage technology.

EDSAC was a general purpose tool used at Cambridge University and led to the first business computer. It is claimed EDSAC led to the LEO that let catering company J Lyons & Co make payroll calculations in 1953.

David Hartley, chairman of CCS said: "The EDSAC was a brilliant achievement that laid the foundations for general purpose computing and introduced programming methods adopted worldwide and still in use. By recreating EDSAC where the public can watch the process, we aim to enthuse a new generation of computer science and engineering students with the genius of those post-war pioneers at Cambridge University."

The machine was originally built by a team led by Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes who was at the time director of the Mathematical Laboratory at Cambridge and is now widely regarded as the father of British computing. His aim was to make a reliable computer using proven hardware and imaginative software programming techniques.

Professor Andrew Hopper, head of the computer laboratory at Cambridge University, said: "EDSAC set computing standards for academia and commerce. It was so successful that in the nine years following 1949 it was used by Cambridge University researchers in studies such as genetics, meteorology and X-ray crystallography and even helped two researchers win Nobel prizes."

The people involved in the reconstruction of EDSAC will draw on their experience of rebuilding Colossus, while Professor Martin Campbell-Kelly, computer historian at Warwick University will provide an academic perspective on the reconstruction of the early computer.

Initial planning for the mammoth project is already underway and a position for project manager of the EDSAC will be advertised soon.

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The first ‘modern' computer created by clever chaps at Cambridge University in the late 40s is to be re-built at Bletchley Park.

Manchester University's Computer Science department might want to take issue with that statement