Man versus Machine

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As a climax to the Harwell Dekatron reboot event, 85-year old Bart Fossey, an early user of the Harwell Dekatron / WITCH computer, re-enacted a “race” he had had with the computer almost 60 years ago.

Essentially the “race” story demonstrates that the computer was a tortoise rather than a hare and although no faster than a skilled operator of a hand calculator, it could continue for hours and even days at a time performing its calculations. This reliability of a computer was astonishing for its time and of huge value to its users.

Bart says that the famous 1950's story told many times in the intervening decades has been embellished in the telling, and he revealed the true nature of the “race” at the reboot celebration.

The embellished story tells of Bart racing the computer using a hand calculator. He keeps up with it for 30 minutes, but then retires exhausted as the machine carries on relentlessly.

Bart says this version is not quite true. He says he was testing a program on the machine to ensure that rounding errors were not leading to a false result. He performed a multi-stage calculation as the Harwell Dekatron was running and realised from the sound of the machine, which can tell an experienced listener exactly what it is doing, that they were each performing the calculations at the same rate.

Bart re-ran the “race” on reboot day in real style talking the rapt audience through the calculations as he went. Despite having only had a little recent practice on the Facit calculator and not being quite as dextrous as he used to be, Bart managed to keep up with the machine for several minutes to great acclaim from the audience.

The 2012 “race” was declared a draw.

See Jack Schofield's take on this story in ZDNet.

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