Hardware

Colossus and other vintage computers from The National Museum of Computing

Tunny machine teletype

Photo by Andy Taylor

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

58 comments
dhope
dhope

There's a lot of equipment in those shots that I worked on over the years. I was surprised by some of the missing models though... Like the HP 3000, TI-980 and for 'personal' computers I noticed that the venerable TRS-80 got snubbed... along with the Atari 800, XE and ST systems. I won't donate them to the museum, but I still have 5 operational Atari machines (800, 65XE, 130XE, 520ST and a MEGA 2) an original IBM AT and a Commodore PC-10.

jimw917
jimw917

This was like a trip down memory lane, but most of it was way before my time. And I'm right there with adders794---I would not want to be the one tasked with keeping these antiques running! I started out on PC's back in 1986 by buying a Tandy TL/2, which was nothing more than a 286 running at a whopping 6 Mhz. And for the privilege of upgrading the hard drive to 30 MEGABYTES, and opting for the CGA monitor (which was capable of displaying a whopping 16 colors!) I ended up paying around $1400.00 - and that was in 1986 dollars! Imagine even 25 years from today, when people look at the iPads and the crude cell phones that we use today-they will be amazed that we were forced to use such underpowered, overpriced stuff! Progress....it is the name of the game! Thanks for the history lesson.

jose.noriega
jose.noriega

If you were a repair technician for this one, every one may have called you "sir" and "can I get you something?" By the way, did Colossus participated in "the Forbin Project"? : ) Boy, I hope NASA doesn't have to use it to run an old obscure program supposed to be used for the Lunar landings (they had to get rather old tape drives back online to get some missing Lunar data!). Back to being sober, I admire the job of technicians that rework devices like this. We should not progress by plain crushing the past under our feet or we run the risk of trying to scrape whatever is left of the past back.

Chuck L
Chuck L

... they began construction of a power plant adjacent to the museum to provide the electricity necessary to run that monster. :)

unclemuzza
unclemuzza

My first computer! wish I'd kept it now. Read error B, how I learned to despise this (really helpful) message after waiting 5-6 minutes for a game to load from the tape deck LOL. I did learn how to program in BASIC on it however and there was also a Pascal compiler available for the machine.

paulettem
paulettem

I remember these old machines well - I even owned some of these. The company I was working for when computers were first put in place had a large room dedicated to the equipment - they used punch cards, so we had another room for the key punch operators. They were very touchy about temperatures, too - had to make sure the room(s) the actual computers lived were constantly air-conditioned. My own first computer was the Timex Sinclair 1000, which did pretty much nothing. They had a later version shown here attached to both a B&W TV and a portable cassette recorder. Next, I moved onto the Kaypro - a CPM machine that I thought was incredible. After that was the Compaq "luggable" which was a DOS machine. I taught myself very early to take these things apart and do whatever repairs and limited upgrades that could be done. It was great fun being in on the beginning of the personal computer - and I haven't left it yet. I still am building my own systems, which today is a snap compared to a decade ago. Thanks for the pictures and memory trip!

pchopewell
pchopewell

We owe so much to Alan Turing, his brains and persistence along with all the other people who worked so diligently as code breakers. We should all give a thought to the situation in WWII if Bletchley Park had not been able to break the German code. We could be living in a very different world today. The code breakers had to work in secret and keep their activities secret for such a long time, no matter what the provocation might be. We owe them big time. Gilbert2

jeff.allen
jeff.allen

Firstly, where's the captions? Or do you want ME to write them... Maybe my eyes are too old, or my brain also too old to find them? Not that they are needed. Maybe run a contest? See how many folks can guess which is what - AND it's function. Y'see kiddies, before electronics, there was electrics. Yes, before valves (tubes, kiddies) they used mechanical gizmoes to calculate and sort. The only power was supplied by an electric motor. Before THAT these devices were "purely" mechanical in that they were powered by us humans. In answer to Adders794 above, a lot of the time these devices were switched on, then the job was completed, then they were switched off again. Obviously the very early devices weren't switched on at all, just turn the handle, or press the keys. Having worked on most of that equipment in my 43 years on the job, which would I rather work on? (Old or new?) The latest and greatest. No comparision at all. The new stuff is more efficient, quieter, cleaner far better in self-diagnosis - the list goes on.. I can't even draw a comparison between the first automobiles and today's - because cars still have wheels, have to be driven, consume fuel etc - much as they always have done. Not computers though. They have changed dramatically. Bring on the next ten years!

gruntfuttok
gruntfuttok

I read that some" bean counter " complaned at the cost of replacing the Valves, so Tommy Flowers almost never turned it off, Valves where 'HOT Swopped' as turning it on and off caused more valves to blow.

tomhayesmp
tomhayesmp

Bill's article reminded me that these British codebreaking computers were only half the story. The codebreaking of the enigma machines got more complicated as the Germans increased the complexity by going from three rotor machines to four rotor machines. The US Navy turned to an engineer working at National Cash Register (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio, Joseph Desch, to design and build a newer generation of codebreaking computers. Desch was researching using thyratron tubes as memory elements to take the cash register from a mechanical device with gears and springs to an electronic one. It was this work that caught the attention of the Navy. This project remained classified until the mid 1980's. Upon the death of Joseph Desch, his daughter, Deborah, went to clean out her dad's belongings and found letters from the US Navy describing the project. She had no idea what this was all about. She only recalled her father telling her that he could never tell her what he did in WWII. Deborah contacted a friend of mine, Aileen LeBlanc, a video documentary producer/director in the Dayton area, with this information. Together they produced a documentary describing the work done in Dayton on breaking the code of the German enigma machine in a video documentary, "Dayton Codebreakers". You can read the history of this project on a website managed by Deborah, www.DaytonCodebreakers.org. I attended the premier of this video in Dayton in 2005 and had the privilege of meeting Tony Hale, mentioned earlier as part of the Colossus rebuild project, who came to the US to attend this premier. The work of building these codebreaking machines was done on the NCR campus in Dayton by Navy WAVES, stationed in Dayton for this task. It was touching to meet some of these women at the premier of the video. They had no idea what they were constructing at the time. I uploaded some photos I took at the video premier here. https://picasaweb.google.com/TomHayesMP/DaytonCodebreakers?authuser=0&feat=directlink There is a list of places on the Dayton Codebreakers website where one can purchase a DVD copy of the documentary. It's a fascinating story.

mbouckaert
mbouckaert

This is indeed an amazing summary of how this world was born and is now in its sixties. Already. But there are a couple of rungs on that ladder that I feel were important, but are missing in the show. - Ever heard of a company called Burroughs? Beyond the ILLIAC, they had items like... * The first multitasking, multiprocessor mainframe; the original B5000 series which evolved and still exists today in its Clearpath Libra incarnation. It should be possible to find parts of a B6500, or B6700, or some A-series box. And maybe even a micro-A to show how to shrink hardware at constant functionality. * The "soft machine", the "Small Systems" series. Strange animal, bit-addressable memory (no, not byte; doen to bit level), software defined word length; microcoded OS and specialized interpreters on top. * The Convergent Technologies "clustered" desktops. In 1983, this was surely the first incarnation of "the network is the computer". Maybe they are more relevant to the history of software development than fitting to a static display of silent iron; but they should be there nevertheless.

domiles
domiles

The hours I have spent on the Wang systems! There are some even older than my computer experiences. It was a fun walk, thanks!

mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

Well Bill, this certainly bought back old memories since I worked on some of these systems. One thing that all these computer museums are missing are the very first Xerox mini's that they produced. I only saw a few when I visited a research center once in the early 70's. Someone should build a site where all the links are to these sites to capture what we did in the past to get us to where we are now. Some of the sites I used to visit are now shut down which is really sad. Maybe you could do some research and show the readers that Honeywell in the distant past used to create animals out of used computer components. They were quite impressive. Thanks for the memories.

adders794
adders794

Looking at these old machines makes me glad I wasn't an IT Support Tech in them days, I think that turning them off and on again wasn't an option.

bencowell
bencowell

Besides my BBC/Acorn I still have all my PCs from my 87 Amstrad 1640. I'm going to get rid all this summer, running out of space, but cant find my Sinclair caluclater from 1971 (?), stil it packed up so often and after 4 replacments must have chaucked it and got a Casio! BC

yooper
yooper

I still have my Commodore64 in the closet and I do appreciate the ease of use and speed of modern computers, but I'm sure many here will agree that there was a magical feeling using the old gear and getting it to work.

soemtron
soemtron

Great place, really must get there soon. Are there any photos's of the Elliott 803B ?

LizAnne044
LizAnne044

WOW! I spent some time on the commodore 64, Apple IIe, and all the ones that folllowed... Amazing how far we've come! Great pics! thanks for sharing!

randolphyoung
randolphyoung

I wonder how fast it was. Probably a older Laptop now was quite a bit faster than it eh?

atokaddod98
atokaddod98

Someone within the sight of this post might have heard of Systems Engineering Laboratories of Plantation, Florida. We made mainframes for the Gemini program at the cape. I worked for them 18 months until I was nabbed by the Navy. The Navy then expanded my knowledge beyond my thoughts.

robertmulder
robertmulder

Wasn't Konrad Zuse the first person who built a digital computer? He finished his Z1 in 1938, and his Z3 in 1941.

waptug
waptug

That was fun. Thank you for sharing. I have owned some of the computers shown. I have even built one of them from a kit.

old graham
old graham

Er...is the furry squirrel part of the original design?

Rodo1
Rodo1

Thanks for the memories. I worked on a mass storage system in the mid-eighties that used a PDP-1135 as the system controller and PDP-1115s as the host channel interface controllers. Interesting to see them again. Our system (Ampex Terabit Memory) stored data for a computer center that had a Cray 1A and a CDC 7600, later replaced by a Cray XMP. Those were the days....

kevsan
kevsan

Imagine what the wife would say if I had one of those in the lounge room. Computers have shrunk at the same rate as my bank balance.

JCitizen
JCitizen

Might as well keep 'em coming! I will definitely want to look at the links and see how close they came to recreating the WWII computer. It would be interesting to note how this differentiated from the other "first" electric digital computer, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer. I would suppose the vacuum cathode switches would separate them as to who is the more modern, but I can't remember the true distinction.

paul.ob.tech
paul.ob.tech

Have a card of Burroughs E2100 ferrite RAM on my desk

Zwort
Zwort

Me to confused relative/friends with locked up PC; kill it by temporarily depriving it of power; leave it disconnected, press the power button to discharge any residue charge, reconnect; your PC should now live again.

JCitizen
JCitizen

is probably eons ahead of this machine; but that is not what I gauge when looking at historical marvels!

Rodo1
Rodo1

I worked for Ampex Corporation for many years. Back in the mid '60s we sold a system called Videofile which was a very large document storage and retrieval system. It used 2" wide video tape as the storage medium. We used a S.E.L. 810A minicomputer (not too mini)as the system controller. It was pretty cutting edge at the time.

bernard.
bernard.

Perhaps we should not forget the Atanasoff-Berry machine which had all the elements of a modern computer: cpu, memory, I/O. There is the Wikipedia page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vincent_Atanasoff and a nice article on this by Allan mackintosh in Physics Today (1987). This was clearly an important part in the evolution of the computer as we know it today. The legal judgment in Honeywell v. Sperry Rand is important affirmation of this.

JCitizen
JCitizen

his was the first electro-mechanical digital computer of modern design - modular components included like memory, modules/relays operating on a yes/no basis(digital comparison 1/0;etc. So maybe Colossus was the first one without, or fewer, moving parts, where its "valves" acted just like transistors.(0/1s)(yes/no) The ABC is arguably one of the first electric computer designs, but was never fully functional, if I'm remembering correctly; ENIAC was started in 1943 but not completed until 1946. I assume the British design was completed earlier than ENIAC so is considered one of the firsts, because of completion date. The EDIVAC used in the Manhattan Project wasn't ordered until 1946, but was completed quickly and was also one of the first fully digital electric machines; using ultrasonic dual memory on two sets of 64 mercury acoustic delay lines. EDIVAC used wire(tape) recording for storage/input, so was more modern than many of the machines mentioned here. The way I see it - depending on what combo of technology you see as modern, and whether it was just a design patent or completed project, determines what is historic in this context. One of the amazing stories is actually of the US effort to decrypt the Japanese Purple code in the Pacific. Their were two US teams that were in competition with each other to trump one-another's accomplishments. One of the teams used plain old mathematical statistical analysis to break the Red, and then Purple code, and even figured a way to reverse engineer any of the machines used by the Japanese to send signals. When they were done, they had what was basically an electric analogue computer in a wooden box, that was actually smaller and better in design than the original machine! The Japanese Enigma machine only used three rotors, but had a very advanced switched stepping system borrowed from the new technology of the phone switching networks. This and the weird Romanji alphabet made this quite a challenge to solve. We might not have had a Colossus, but we had some ingenious, contentious, stubborn men on our side of the world, doing everything they could to clean up the typical American mess in intelligence gathering. We basically always get caught with our pants down, until a disaster strikes, then we do something to improve our situation - 911 was no exception, and more is in store for the future, I'm sure!!

Brian.Walters2
Brian.Walters2

I saw Colossus during a visit arranged by the college I was attending. It looks like an old telephone exchange because that's what it was made from. The original was designed and built by Dr. Tommy Flowers and a team of telephone engineers at the GPO research station at Dollis Hill in North London. This is a modern rebuild of the world?s first electronic computer; called Colossus, it was used at "Station X", Bletchley Park in 1944 to break the Lorenz teleprinter cipher used by the German high command, and it helped the Allies to confirm that the Germans had swallowed the pre-"D-Day" deceptions hook, line and sinker. Contrary to popular belief, Colossus was not used to break the Enigma code; that was the job of the "Turing Bombe", stolen code books and a couple of Enigma machines provided by the Poles, not to mention the heroic work by the teams of mathematicians. The Turing Bombe didn't actually decode the messages but was used to find the settings for the wheels and plugboard on the Enigma machine. Between 1943 and the end of WW2 in 1945, ten of the Colossus machines were built, and they were so successful in finding the code wheel combinations on the Lorenz coded teletype machine allowing the messages to be decrypted that many bombing raids by the RAF and the 8th USAF and resistance sabotage were aimed at cutting landline communications, forcing the Germans to use radio, which could then be intercepted. At the end of the war, Churchill was so worried about the technology falling into "Uncle Joe's" hands, the "Iron Curtain" was about to descend across Europe that he ordered a complete security blackout for 30 years and also the total destruction of all the Colossus machines. That security blackout and the whole security culture of Bletchley Park was so complete that there are some stories of married couples who worked there during the war not even knowing that their spouse also worked there. It was only after 1975 that the wartime work of Bletchley Park, including breaking the famous Enigma code came to light. Until 1975, the US thought that they had built the first electronic computer with ENIAC, sorry, Britain did it first, and it is now acknowledged that Colossus was the first. As for films like "U571" in 2000, well as they say in Hollywood "Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?". This rebuild took one man, Tony Sale about 14 years of research and construction to piece together the machine from little more than 9 grainy pictures found in the UK national archive, some drawings on the backs of envelopes and the memories of some of the people who worked there. On the technical side, there were two types of Colossus, version 1 developed from a unit called "Heath Robinson" which contained 1500 valves, vacuum tubes to you, and version 2, which contained 2400 valves to continually read and re-read the Murray (Baudot) code 5 bit teleprinter paper tape at 1500 characters per second and apply Modulo 2 mathematics (Exclusive OR) to find a particular set of characters. The paper tape was read by a lamp and photocell system. 6 photocells were used; five to read the data and one to read the sprocket holes to provide the synch pulses. Once those characters were found, the start positions for the wheel combinations indicated by Colossus were tried on a different machine called "Tunny", and if German plain language popped out then the message was then translated into English. Finding the wheel settings was made marginally easier from time to time because the operators sometimes made errors and resent messages without resetting the wheels. The rebuild isn't just a "representation" of what the machine looked like, it really does work. Ironically, the only place in the world where new type 807 valves, used quite extensively on the machine, can now be obtained is Russia. The recreated radio monitoring site shows a BC221 hetrodyne wavemeter for accurate frequency setting and five RCA receivers type AR88, sometimes used in the "diversity mode" where a number of receivers, each with its own separate aerial, antenna to my American friends, were all tuned to the same frequency and the audio outputs were combined and the receiver AGC (Automatic Gain Control) lines were connected together in an effort to reduce signal fading due to the atmospheric conditions which affected MF and HF radio transmissions. If you're interested in finding out more, visit this website: http://www.codesandciphers.org.uk/

mf001
mf001

The key difference was the programmability. At the risk of stating the obvious, you can't have two "firsts". The A-B was not programmable. Colossus was, and predated ENIAC, also claimed to be the worlds first computer. Being conceived and built in wartime, like the mechanical Bombes, Clossus was classified Top Secret, and all copies were destroyed after the war. The story of Bletchley Park and Colossus only started emerging in the 70's, by which time the US had created its own mythology. I don't think that there is any doubt now that Colossus was the first, and if my memory serves me right, a copy was shipped across the pond on Churchill's instructions to what was becoming the NSA - the merged cryptography sections from Army and Navy Intelligence. IBM had been making mechanical devices - if I recall correctly, their technology, if not their actual products, was used by the German government of the last 1930s, and used to administer aspects of the Final Solution, that monstrous name for an even more monstrous crime. Punchcard based, it was never electronic. Of course, having been given the technology by us friendly Brits, along with that of the cavity magnetron, the US took less time than we did to exploit them commercially. But we don't mind, because we're quite fond of you guys in an avuncular way.

seanferd
seanferd

Chock full of valves. I don't recall whether or not the restoration was complete as of the last time I read about Colossus. I'm glad that it was able to be finished, though. Fantastic.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I believe I mentioned that. However, it was never completed. Yes, the patent proved that they had the idea first. Since Bletchley finished completing their design first; I have no problem tipping my proverbial hat to that Park.

Rodo1
Rodo1

@Brian.Walters2 Thanks for more history on this subject. As an old "valve" man myself, I find this whole thing very fascinating.

JCitizen
JCitizen

The Zues Z3 is considered the first in that area. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/06/02/zuse_computer/ One might argue, that Colossus was the first truly electronic computer, but it used electric relays just like the Z3. So I'm wondering how it can actually hold that record? First with truly electronic parts included? The Z1 and Z2 had mechanical processes in them, but Z3 was built with telephone relays. It was Turing complete and had memory, and was programmable. I'm more impressed with the specs on it,and I'm not bringing all of them up. It all depends on what you define as a first*

JCitizen
JCitizen

that they finished so quickly. The restoration looks just like the dusty originals that I had seen in storage pics, except brand new condition, of course! I would durn near cream my genes to hear those punch tapes fed in and see all the activity and hear the noise it made to crack the codes!! :O I've always admired the history of Bletchley Park. (edit)spelling is terrible! However my grammar shall always be.

Zwort
Zwort

Oh yes me too! I have spent many nights in a garage rebuilding engines, and split the dawn in two with the roar of a big parallel twin at the point when the first sun rays illuminate the earth, in summer. What a joy to do plug chopping at about 4 a.m., to make sure that the machine is running neither too rich nor too lean. :-)

JCitizen
JCitizen

I rue the day, I had to sell my 1977 shovelhead Harley FLHS!! :(

Zwort
Zwort

(Responding here as I've reached my limit at the point of your response.) Thank you for the link. Babbage and the woman scientist ISTR helped him can only be described as brilliant. I don't know if genius is the correct term. Had the machine been fully up and running in his time then the difference (please excuse my unintended pun) it would have made might have altered the course of history. As a biker I admire the quality of the gearing and such. :-)

Zwort
Zwort

No I think I must have missed that. Got link? :-)

JCitizen
JCitizen

did you see the picture article dedicated to the successor to the Babbage? Fantastic!! :O