New displays, restoring the oldest working PC in the UK and lots more.
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New Display of pre-1970s Components
Three new display cabinets have replaced the racking holding portable computers in the WITCH room. As this room is designated for the display of computing in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, each of the cabinets will display artefacts relating to British computers of that period.
The right-most cabinet holds a display processor rack, the engineers' console and other equipment from the EDSAC II computer built by Cambridge University in 1958.
The centre cabinet is devoted to Ferranti computers and other machinery developed in Manchester in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The main exhibit is a logic "door" from a Ferranti Mark 1*, which is flanked by a Williams Tube (1948). This is an early storage device that uses the screen of a cathode-ray tube to store 1280 bits of information. When a shelf is available, the Argus 400 portable computer from 1963 (currently in the left hand cabinet) will also be added.
The remaining cabinet will contain artefacts from the LEO 2 and 3 computers, but these are not due until the end of February, so the cabinet is showing off one of our volunteer's collection of valves.
We intend to provide an interactive display near the cabinets so visitors wishing to know more about this equipment and how it worked will be able to drill-down and understand some of the problems faced and solved by the inventors of these machines.
Restoring the oldest working PC in the UK
South Western Technical Products were a US electronic-kit company that started in 1964 as Demco. They produced computer kits from 1975, the first one being the SWTP 6800, which was based on the Motorola 6800 micro processor. The museum is restoring an SWTP 6800 from 1976 and, although there are a reasonable number of systems still around, this particular machine has an interesting story in that in 2002 it appeared in Computer Weekly as the winner of a competition to find the oldest working PC in the UK.
The SWTP 6800 was from the same era as the classic Altair 8800 and, whereas the Altair had front panel switches to load program code, the SWTP 6800 had a ROM based monitor, to which a serial terminal was attached, to load programs. The model the museum has consists of a processor card, five 8Kbyte memory cards and twin 5 1/4" floppy drives.
The system runs FLEX, a Disk Operating system that runs in 8K of RAM. Currently the machine will boot and run the ROM based monitor. Restoration continues to enable booting with the FLEX Operating System.
The Computer weekly article can be found at: here
Tidbits from the Archive
A book recently donated to the museum was originally given to one Mr G. Bain on his starting work at The British Tabulating Machine Company Ltd. Mr Bain eventually went on to work on the Bombe. The book contains a collection of notes and illustrations, from lectures in 1935/36, describing the operation and application of Hollerith machines. The first section of this book describes the Origin of Calculating Machines and Babbage's Difference Engine, a fascinating read which is reproduced below. Unfortunately, the book is made up of the carbon-copy flimsies used by typists in those days and, in many places, the scanned print is poor.
Also recently donated is the January 1975 edition of Popular Electronics containing the Altair 8800 review - the first minicomputer to rival commercial models. It was this article which prompted Bill Gates and Paul Allen to launch the Microsoft company, and is reproduced below. Also in connection with this is the Microsoft Timeline here which describes Paul Allen waving his copy of Popular Electronics and saying "This is it! It about to begin!".
Some 19% of the Archive has now been catalogued, some 8,000 documents, 1000 of which are photos from the Computer Weekly archive and which have been digitally scanned as well.
The Archive corridor has been refurbished, new bookshelves installed and also inside the door. These are now being used to display the many popular magazines in the Archive.
Following the delivery of custom made book stands, volumes of the Computer Weekly archive showing 'This Week 25 Years Ago' and 'This Week 40 Years Ago' are now on display.
The Archive Team is growing, with eight members now, one of whom is concentrating on scanning photos and documents in danger of being lost, whilst another is concentrating on cataloguing the software in the Archive.
NPL Technology of the Internet Gallery
Last August the museum received a visit from the Founding Curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. He was very interested in the work of NPL on the development of Packet Switching and the NPL Data Communications Network and spent a couple of hours asking questions about the NPL work and taking innumerable photographs. He explained that his museum was setting up an exhibition, beginning in January 2011 and scheduled to run for 10 years, in which they wished to include an iconic example of the technology used in the NPL Data Communications Network. He very quickly spotted the 'Buttons & Lights' Control Panel that network Users used to interact with the network. As luck would have it, tNMoC has a spare set of these Buttons & Lights so, paperwork duly completed, the NPL Control Box was Fedex'ed to California on a formal inter-museum loan.
The title of the Computer History Museum's exhibition is 'Revolution - The First 2000 years of Computing' and is installed in 19 thematic alcoves and two theatres. It includes 1000+ artifacts and features 100+ videos produced from historic photos, film footage, news clips and oral histories.
In the wide-angle view the Switch-box is in the perspex case approx. centre picture. The caption reads:
Switch box from Britain's NPL network, National Physical Laboratory, UK, ca. 1970
These handmade "buttons and lights" switch boxes connected computers to the NPL network developed by packet-switching pioneer Donald Davies. NPL was a competitor to ARPANET.
Loan courtesy of the National Museum of Computing, UK
This exhibition is good news for tNMoC, NPL and the UK; it gets the story of the development of Packet Switching into the US. A good excuse for anybody with a stop-over in San Francisco to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.