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Oldest ''Working'' Computer Gets New Life

The world's first electronic computer, the Colossus Mk II, will finally get a neighbor as work will begin this week to restore the oldest "original functioning electronic stored program" computer, the historic Harwell / WITCH computer. Volunteers of The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) will move the beast to the museum grounds and restore it to its full working condition according to this press release.

TNMOC, a registered charity, is asking members of the public and industry to donate funds to the year-long restoration project by purchasing one of 25 shares at £4500 each (roughly $7400 USD). TNMOC will use the funds to not only restore the computer, but extend the "ever-expanding" museum. Insight Software has already signed on as the project's first sponsor.

According to the PR, the Harwell Computer dates back to its original inception in 1949. The machine was intended to automate the calculations performed by a team of graduates using mechanical calculators. Rather than built for fast processing, the Harwell Computer was designed to be simple, reliable, and attendant free. The computer originally booted up in 1951, and remained operational until 1957.

"The machine was a relay-based computer using 900 Dekatron gas-filled tubes that could each hold a single digit in memory--similar to RAM in a modern computer--and paper tape for both input and program storage," explained Kevin Murrell, a director and trustee of TNMOC. "Its promises for reliability over speed were certainly met – it was definitely the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare fable. In a race with a human mathematician using a mechanical calculator, the human kept pace for 30 minutes, but then had to retire exhausted as the machine carried on remorselessly. The machine once ran for ten days unattended over a Christmas/New Year holiday period."