Of course, if you’re a computer historian, you already know that WITCH refers to the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell.
If not, here’s the story: The 2.5-ton machine, first constructed in the 1950s as part of an atomic research program, became the “world’s oldest original working digital computer” after a museum in the UK restored and then rebooted it on Tuesday. Unlike today’s nearly mute devices, the massive computer clicks, clacks and flashes like something out of an old sci-fi movie.
“In 1951 the Harwell Dekatron (the other, less-amazing name for the WITCH) was one of perhaps a dozen computers in the world, and since then it has led a charmed life surviving intact while its contemporaries were recycled or destroyed,” Kevin Murrell, a trustee at the UK’s National Museum of Computing, said in a news release.
The computer outlived its usefulness in atomic research by 1957 and was used as a teaching device until 1973. It went on display briefly before being dismantled, the museum says, and then was “rediscovered” by volunteers at the museum in 2008 or 2009.
The computer’s “flashing lights and clattering printers and readers provides an awe-inspiring display for visiting school groups and the general public keen to learn about our rich computer heritage,” the museum says.
It’s also a healthy reminder that not all gadgets have to die after a single product cycle. At a time when iPhones are swapped out every 12 months, the TI-83 calculator and this computer are among the only pieces of technological machinery that have survived for decades.
I’d also add the HP-12C financial calculator. Been around since 1981 and when HP made it with new, faster, hardware the legions of finance people for whom an HP-12C is an extension of their right hand said, resoundingly, NO.
I’ve carried one since 1987 and use it daily. I’ve replaced the batteries once in that time span.
I had heard of WITCH but not of its reboot. I will have to check it out on my next trip to UK.
For those geeks who want revel in computer history, I’d suggest a trip to the Santa Clara computer museum.
They have one of two working Babbage difference engines plus Napiers bones, ENIAC, Whirlwind, WISC, etc. etc.
That HP calculator is now a free Android app.
The life of a cellphone might be two years max., but PCs seem to last a lot longer than they used to (consider how many Windows XP machines are still in daily use). And tablets and many other electronic gadgets are lucky if they last even that long.
And longer-lived PCs, even without tablets and smartphones, are bad news for Microsoft.
Is it any surprise that MSFT price peaked ($58.375) on Dec 31, 1999? And, is Windows 8 going to restructure Microsoft as an Apple-me-too money machine and resurrect the stock price?