Feeds

Behold ATLAS, the fastest computer of 50 years ago

Britain's first supercomputer remembered on its birthday

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Think today's computing industry moves fast? Try that of decades past. Moore's Law predicts that processor power will double every couple of years or so, but on December 7, 1962, the scientific computing power of the entire UK is said to have doubled in a single day.

That was the day they switched on the original Ferranti Atlas, the UK's first supercomputer – and for a time one of the fastest machines in the world – which celebrates its 50th birthday on Friday.

Over at Google's Europe Blog, the Chocolate Factory has put together an essay and a short video about the Atlas to commemorate the event, including interviews with some of the men involved with building and maintaining the colossal number-cruncher.

Just those basic tasks were no mean feats, given the technology of the time. Although the Atlas used transistors, rather than the valves – vacuum tubes, in US lingo – found in earlier computers, it still needed to be hand-assembled from countless components.

As former Atlas maintenance engineer John Crowther explains in the video, assembling the second Atlas at the University of London took six months.

"When we had finished commissioning, we eventually got to a point where the machine would run for ten minutes without fail, and at that point we all cheered and went to the pub to celebrate surviving ten minutes," Crowther explains.

Keeping the thing running wasn't easy, either. The factory used to manufacture Atlas was originally used to build railway engines, and as a result the components would arrive thickly coated with soot. Crowther estimates that around a third of the system faults his team handled were due to dirt.

Still, it was worth it. The Atlas delivered nearly a hundred-fold advance in processing power over previous computers and it brought many innovations, including virtual memory and a multitasking operating system. With Atlas, calculations that used to take hours would take minutes.

Naturally, that kind of advance didn't come cheap. Each of the three Atlas machines that were eventually built sold for around £2.5m, or about £50m in today's currency. Processor time was billed at around £750-800 per hour – and that's in 1962 pounds sterling.

Ah, but it was a short-lived era. The last Atlas was decommissioned in 1976, just 14 years after the first was put into service, as newer models made them obsolete.

After all, as Crowther points out in Google's video, "People thought only one Atlas would be needed, ever. And now, your washing machine has a more powerful computer in it than Atlas did." ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
The cloud that goes puff: Seagate Central home NAS woes
4TB of home storage is great, until you wake up to a dead device
Azure TITSUP caused by INFINITE LOOP
Fat fingered geo-block kept Aussies in the dark
You think the CLOUD's insecure? It's BETTER than UK.GOV's DATA CENTRES
We don't even know where some of them ARE – Maude
Intel offers ingenious piece of 10TB 3D NAND chippery
The race for next generation flash capacity now on
Want to STUFF Facebook with blatant ADVERTISING? Fine! But you must PAY
Pony up or push off, Zuck tells social marketeers
Oi, Europe! Tell US feds to GTFO of our servers, say Microsoft and pals
By writing a really angry letter about how it's harming our cloud business, ta
SAVE ME, NASA system builder, from my DEAD WORKSTATION
Anal-retentive hardware nerd in paws-on workstation crisis
prev story

Whitepapers

Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Protecting against web application threats using SSL
SSL encryption can protect server‐to‐server communications, client devices, cloud resources, and other endpoints in order to help prevent the risk of data loss and losing customer trust.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.