Britain’s first mass-produced business computer
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More than 60 years after it was first revealed to the public, Britain’s first mass-produced business computer, the Hollerith Electronic Computer (HEC), is now on display at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) on Bletchley Park.
The HEC was the prototype for the range of computers that were to become Britain’s best-selling first-generation computer and, as the first computer installed in many countries including India, New Zealand and East Africa, the machine played a key role in starting the global computer revolution.
Today, the first version of the two by three metre HEC with its highly innovative magnetic drum store can be seen by visitors to the First Generation Gallery at TNMOC where it stands alongside other machines of the period: the ongoing reconstruction of the 1949 EDSAC computer and the original 1951 Harwell Dekatron / WITCH computer.
The HEC was commissioned by the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM). Dr Raymond Bird, a skilled and enthusiastic electronics engineer, was tasked with its development.
Dr Bird explained the development process: “BTM was one of Britain’s largest suppliers of pre-computing punch-card systems and the company realised that computing was the company’s future. BTM had been approached by Professor Andrew Booth of Birkbeck College, London, who needed input and output technologies – punch cards – for a computer he was designing. A deal was struck and I was sent to make copies of Booth’s computer design.
“Previously I had only worked with analogue technologies and I was mesmerised by seeing this digital door opening before me. It was my job to get something working. I did the things that Booth thought were trivial – I engineered it!
“Unknown to me at the time, the people working in the room next to me were the engineers who had made the wartime code-breaking Bombe machine designed by Alan Turing and deployed at Bletchley Park. In the early 1950s they were continuing to develop machines for BTM.”
By 1953, the HEC was ready to be displayed to the public and Dr Bird clearly remembers setting up for the Business Efficiency Exhibition: “We worked throughout the night at Olympia to have the HEC ready – keeping a friendly eye on our competitors, Power Samas, who were working just as hard a few stands away. They were preparing an electronic multiplier and printer, but when they saw what we had, they had fear in their eyes! Our demonstration of the noughts and crosses game was a great success in showing the potential power of computers. This was probably the first time that a computer had gone on public display in Britain.”
Dr Bird realised that it was essential to manufacture a machine that was operationally compatible with BTM’s punch card equipment and, crucially, at a price that was in line with existing pre-computing technologies. His vision was to come to pass with the HEC 2M and later the HEC 4 which sold in record-breaking quantities from 1955 to 1962. In 1959, following a business merger, BTM was renamed ICT and the HEC 4 became the ICT1200 series.
TNMOC trustee Kevin Murrell was instrumental in arranging the long-term loan of the HEC from Birmingham Museums Collection Centre, where it had been stored for many years. He said: “The HEC is a key addition to our collection of computers representing the time when Britain was at the forefront of the global computing revolution. Our skilled volunteers have been poring over the HEC to understand how it worked and to fully document it. At first we thought that we couldn’t possibly restore any of it to working order, but now some possibilities are emerging and we will be investigating those.
“Technically the HEC has some very interesting and innovative features. Instead of delay lines, it used a magnetic drum for memory. One of its legacies can be seen in many of today’s computers and in almost every smartphone – they use modifications of the Booth Multiplier algorithm, first deployed in the HEC.”
TNMOC thanks the Birmingham Museums Trust for the loan of the HEC, and Birkbeck College, the Computer Conservation Society and individuals who have helped fund the transport of the machine.
The HEC can be seen by Museum visitors in the First Generation Gallery at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park whenever the Museum is fully open. See www.tnmoc.org/visit
Notes To Editors
About the Hollerith Electronic Computer (HEC)
1951 ... HEC commissioned – design team goes to Booth’s workshop in March
1951 ... runs first program later in the year
1953 ... pre-production HEC 2 exhibited at Business Efficiency Exhibition at Olympia, London in June
1955 ... first production machine (HEC 2M) delivered
1959 ... BTM merges with ICT and HEC 4 becomes ICT 1200 series
Sales ..... Precise quantity unknown, but HEC 4 is thought to have sold more than 100
Size ..... 1.5 m high by 3m wide by 0.5m deep
Valves ..... approximately 1000
Memory ..... Magnetic drum rotating at 3000 rpm with 32 tracks, 16 words per track (2 Kbytes)
Speed ..... Addition 32 clock pulses or about 1.25ms
..... Multiplication 640ms (max) for a 32-bit multiplier needing 32 drum accesses
Input ..... Punched card reader
Output ..... Printer or card punch (The original HEC was not suitable for commerce because it did not have both a card punch and a printer – the HEC 4 had both and was therefore suitable for business.) Processor Accumulator and shift register.
About The National Museum of Computing
The National Museum of Computing, located on Bletchley Park, is an independent charity housing the world's largest collection of functional historic computers, including the rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, and the WITCH, the world's oldest working digital computer. The Museum enables visitors to follow the development of computing from the ultra-secret pioneering efforts of the 1940s through the large systems and mainframes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the rise of personal computing in the 1980s and beyond.
The Museum runs a highly successful Learning Programme for schools and colleges and promotes introductions to computer coding amongst young people, especially females, to inspire the next generation of computer scientists and engineers. In 2016, Fujitsu will be creating a Fujitsu Innovation Hub in the TNMOC Classroom for visiting students and general visitors.
Funders of the Museum have included Bletchley Park Capital Partners, Bloomberg, CreateOnline, Ceravision, Fujitsu, InsightSoftware.com, Ocado Technology, FUZE, 4Links, Google UK, IBM, NPL, HP Labs, and BCS.
Outside the Easter Bytes period, the whole Museum is open to the public from 12 noon - 5pm on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, spring and summer Bank Holidays and during long school holidays. The Colossus and Tunny galleries are open daily. Public and private Guided Tours are available and bookable online – see the website or the iPhone app for details. Educational and corporate group visits are available by prior arrangement.
For more information about TNMOC and trustees, see www.tnmoc.org and follow @tnmoc on Twitter and The National Museum of Computing on Facebook and Google+. A TNMOC iPhone App is also available from the iPhone App Store.
Stephen Fleming, Palam Communications