Lost Piece Of First Computer Discovered

Feb 8, 2015 By Deepa Gopal
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Can you imagine that the computer in your pocket (aka smartphone) was once the size of a classroom!

Engineers at the National Museum of Computing in U.K are rebuilding EDSAC, the world’s first general purpose computer. The discovery of 19 detailed circuit diagrams of the computer in June 2014 was an unexpected surprise – the engineers had been relying on pictures to help them with the reconstruction.

Now, there is more good news for the EDSAC team. When Robert Little of Allentown, Pennsylvania read about the EDSAC project, he realized he had a small part of this computer in his garage. Little had obtained it in 1969 from Dr. Robert Clark – a scientist at Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was using the EDSAC racks as a bookshelf!

Robert has donated his EDSAC rack to the British team and they are trying to integrate this original piece into their design.

What Is EDSAC?

EDSAC stands for Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator – a machine that was designed to help mathematicians and scientists do complex calculations quickly. Until EDSAC, a few computers had been built for specific purposes such as military applications.

EDSAC was built by a team led by Sir Maurice Wilkes, a professor at the University of Cambridge in U.K. Wilkes was inspired by the theories of John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician. In 1945, Neumann had suggested that the future of computing lay on computers that could store instructions (programs) and data.

EDSAC first debuted in 1949. It was a little over 6 feet tall and took up the space of 13x16 square foot room. It performed 650 instructions per second – compare that with today’s computers like the Intel i7 that can do 92 billion instructions per second!

When Computers Were Huge…

At the heart of computers are hundreds of millions of tiny electronic devices called transistors. Like your brain cells, these transistors control the computer’s operation. Each transistor can be in one of two states – either ON or OFF, depending on what the program asks it to do. 

Today, these hundreds of millions of transistors are squeezed onto a 200 square-mm piece of silicon called the IC (Integrated Circuit). But before transistors came along, scientists had to use vacuum tubes to do the same – turn ON or OFF.

Vacuum tubes are nothing but glass bulbs with air removed, creating a vacuum – similar to the electric bulb invented by Edison. Three plates insides this bulb control the flow of current to put this bulb in ON or OFF state. But as you can imagine, each bulb is huge compared to a tiny transistor!

The EDSAC team is rebuilding the first computer using these earliest computing elements – the vacuum tubes. The project is expected to complete by the end of this year.

So, if you are planning to visit the U.K, don't miss this first computer at the National Museum of Computing – the ancestor to the one in your pocket!

Courtesy BBC, tnmoc.org