Hardware

Bringing back the first computers: The world's greatest restoration projects

While Konrad Zuse and his role creating one of the world's first computers may not be widely known, the history of computing is being kept alive.

Around the globe are individuals who have dedicated their time to collecting and reviving the computers that kickstarted the information age.

In November this year, a number of these individuals were in the running to win the second Tony Sale Award for computer conservation.

The award is named after Tony Sale, the engineer who embarked on a 14-year rebuild of the World War II Colossus - the computer which helped crack ciphers used to protect Hitler's communications with his generals - with nothing more than eight photos of the machine.

Here are the projects that competed for the award and the early machines that have been bought back to life.

IBM 1401 - Computing History Museum

In the mid-1960s nearly half of all the computers in the world were reportedly based on the IBM 1400 series.

The 1401 - the first in the early transistorised computer series - is like all machines of its vintage, a beast. The processing unit is as wide as a generous cupboard to accommodate half a million or so discrete electronic components whose equivalents have been shrunk down to microscopic size inside modern processors. When powered a unit and its associated equipment could consume 12,000 watts of 50-Hz power.

The German 1401 restored by the Computing History Museum in California consisted of a central processing unit with 3,000 printed circuit boards, mechanically driven card reader/punch, hydraulically controlled chain line printer, and six reel-to-reel vacuum-column tape drives, alongside some even older punched card equipment.

Breathing life into a five decades old machine requires a little more dedication than dusting off a Spectrum. The team at the museum ran into rust, and lots of it, with corrosion across exposed surfaces on mechanical moving parts and transistors - thanks to the iron in the early alloy-junction germanium transistors and crystal diodes.

Over the course of months the team debugged 1401 diagnostic instruction sequences, step-by-step, until they identified and fixed the 130 failed boards among the 3,000 in the unit. The museum entirely re-fabricated the mechanical components in the 729 tape drive and built a custom tape drive analog/PC-controlled hardware emulator to debug the 1401's tape controller unit.

The museum later took ownership of a second 1401 unit that had been operating in a mom-and-pop business until 1995, which was also restored to working order, with both machines able to operate for months before a failure.

For the museum the biggest thrill is seeing people who have grown up in an era of touchscreen phones and apps witnessing the complexity that has been abstracted away.

"Kids' and adults' eyes light up as they punch cards on a keypunch, witness a clattering chain printer, stand before the human-sized spinning tape drives, gawk at its big size, and be taken aback by its "low cost" ($3m in today's dollars). Visitors experiencing our running 1401s feel as if they've stepped into a technological time machine," Robert Garner, of the museum's restoration team wrote on the museum's site.

The two machines are on show at the museum as part of its IBM Demo Lab.

The Demo Lab was the joint winner of the Tony Sale Award. The judging panel said of the display: "The IBM Demo Lab is a flawless restoration of a machine that signalled a turning point in the computer industry and the use of computers in business."

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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