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BackLog is a new feature for BootLog and the place to share your memories of the glory days of consumer electronics and computing from the 1940s to the 1980s. We begin the series with some choice reminiscences from Robert T. Street, who has been trying to tame the beast for over 50 years

ANY OLD IRON – 1955-1961

By Robert T. Street


So, you think you are sitting pretty, do you – with your laptop and maybe a fancy mobile ‘phone. Let me disillusion you – you are a slave. “Oh,” you say, “don’t talk drivel”. Well, just think, dear computer user, you are virtually totally in the hands of someone else – probably Microsoft, Apple and/or Oracle. Is that a bad thing? You have to decide. As for me, I’m still not sure.


An early Ferranti computer,enough boxes to fill the ground floor of a house, but with less memory  than the SIM card in your mobile phone


I started in the computer business at what was then the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment or AWRE for short, at Aldermaston. This was then populated by two classes of people, the Scientific Class and the Experimental Class. To be a member of the former, you normally had to have at least a 2.1. in some scientific subject. For the latter any old scientific or Maths. Degree filled the bill.


I arrived there in 1955 as an Experimental Officer. I was initially under the wing of Nick Hoskin (still around?) who gave me a cyclostyled and scruffy manual for the Ferranti Mark One Star, then the only computer there. “Write a program,” he intoned. “What to do?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t care – solve some equations, any equations”.


Nick was one of the saner members of that establishment. I sometimes wondered whether the many Scientific Officer, Ph.D. holders there achieved their qualification as a form of very belated, bizarre revenge on others, who when the current Ph.D. holders were children, had denied them access to their gangs, because they were physically inept or games-incapable. One Scientific Officer there cut off his eyebrows as a joke: another pee’d down the front of his trousers so often, that you could actually see the steam rising in an over-heated room. Others were odd in their own fashion. Sic transit gloria mundi.


But the Ferranti Mark One Star – yes, it filled a room at least the size of the ground floor of a modern detached house. It had some peculiar number of 36-bit words, maybe 32k. Its storage comprised magnetic drums, which took aeons to rotate. Input was from paper tape and output via a Teletype. The binary operating system was written by Alick Glennie, whom, I am told, has retired at the age of 80 t0 some Scottish fortress. Vacuum tubes and drums were grossly unreliable and it’s a wonder that any program actually functioned. But they did - occasionally.


This situation was made for IBM, which lost little time in moving in with the 704. This was still vacuum tube controlled, but, at least it had magnetic tapes and a Hollerith 80-column card reader. Plus, of course, Fortran 2. (I often wondered what happened to Fortran 1, but IBM kept very quiet about that).


An IBM 704 still based on valves but with the added refinements of magnetic tape and a punched card reader


AWRE had to wait a while for the solid-state 7090, then Stretch, but this and its successors have stayed there, as far as I know, ever since. Are you still above ground, Les Underhill?


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