Hardware

Work begins on bringing pioneering 1940's computer back to life

Work has begun on rebuilding the UK's first fully operational general-purpose computer.

The Edsac - the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, seen above - was completed in 1949 and used at Cambridge University to help research into areas including genetics, meteorology and X-ray crystallography.

UK computer conservation specialists this week produced the first replica components to rebuild the EDSAC. The rebuild will take place in public view at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, England, and is scheduled for completion in 2015.

The computer was built from 12 racks spread over 20 square metres. The racks held the more than 3,000 vacuum tubes it used to carry out instructions and the mercury-filled tubes that acted as its memory.

Edsac could carry out 650 instructions per second and had just 2KB of memory. While obviously orders of magnitude less powerful than a modern PC it effectively computed some 1,500 times faster than the mechanical calculators it replaced.

The machine's principal designer and creator sir Maurice Wilkes, seen here on the left, led the team that built the original Edsac for the Mathematical Laboratory at Cambridge University. Wilkes died in November 2010 at the age of 97.

Photo credit: Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge

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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.