In today’s world of mobile computing with devices that fit in your pocket, the notion that the first computers ever made occupied entire rooms and weighed several tonnes is hard to remember. It seems almost ridiculous too. Weren’t they just in the imagination of Hollywood producers of B-grade science fiction movies? Nope, they were real, and the WITCH is back.
The WITCH computer became the “world’s oldest original working digital computer” recently when a museum in the UK refurbished the machine and fired it up. The scene must have been akin to a cheesy sci-fi film since unlike today’s computers, the WITCH was beeping, flashing and clunking like nobody’s business. And it read software off paper tape with holes punched into it. The only thing it was missing was those magnetic tape reels, but alas, they appeared in later, more ‘advanced’ models.
The WITCH isn’t particularly useful anymore outside of its attraction as a museum piece. It can store 90 numbers, so it’s effectively a room-sized calculator. It used flashing valves instead of binary code to store numbers, and it could take five to ten seconds to multiply two numbers together. It was used in atomic research up until 1957 and then as a teaching device until 1973 when it was renamed the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell (ie WITCH!). In its time, the WITCH was only one of about a dozen state of the art computers in the world.
Given the WITCH was used for several decades without an upgrade, the mammoth computer marks a stark contrast with today’s computing devices which can be swapped out for an upgrade every 12 months (and in some cases even sooner). It would also be hard to see today’s devices working 60 years after their original build date. It can be easy to take our access to cheap computing technology for granted these days. It’s a great thing that a computer like the WITCH is still functioning since it’s a fascinating window into the beginnings of the computer age.
The Witch Is Back