Ferranti Atlas: Britain's first supercomputer

Uploaded by computingheritage on 07.12.2012

An Atlas at Manchester
Using thousands of circuit packages like this
the world's fastest and most powerful computer takes shape
Built at the Manchester computer factory of Ferranti Limited
and destined for the computing machine laboratory of Manchester University.
Normally one sees
an increase of perhaps 10-fold in the power of each generation of computers
The difference the Atlas brought was
more like a 100-fold. Suddenly that same program that ran
for hours could run in minutes. All this activity was happening
more or less without human intervention.
When we come to Atlas, Tom Kilburn was the key man
He had come to Manchester
He had come to Manchester
as an experienced engineer if you like from the government research establishment
My role has been quite simple, and that's been to
look at the last computers, see what was wrong with them
and build the next one.
There's a progression of computers that leads right up to Atlas
and most of them in this progression were
designed as university prototypes that were then taken and marketed in
designed as university prototypes that were then taken and marketed in
production form
by the company Ferranti Limited. The Ferranti Mark 1 was the
first commercial machine to be produced
first commercial machine to be produced
Their aim was to be first into the future and if you're first into the future
you're taking a risk.
Finished packages of many types
all using transistors instead of valves
are the building bricks
from which much of Atlas is made up.
The nuclear energy people
were demanding more
computing power for strategic purposes. It was just about the time
that we decided to build
what we called Muse.
And so Tom Kilburn talked with both
Sir Vincent Ferranti and
Sebastian Ferranti
and they agreed
to build a machine based on Muse
and they decided to call it Atlas. Here we had
a small group of dedicated people
coming up with some key inventions in the face of significant difficulties
problems in the early days were that
all the individual
had to be assembled by hand
On Atlas at London it took us six months
to get it recommissioned from the shop floor
at Manchester. To put a machine like that all together
check it out and get it working is a very considerable time. We didn't think that
working long shifts was anything
that mattered at all, we just worked.
The longest I ever worked was twenty six hours and then I nearly forgot to get
off the train when i got home
The factory
at West Gorton had been a railway engine manufacturing place, so it was absolutely
filthy with really hard soot
This dirt got everywhere
You just couldn't see the components, it was just a thick layer of greasy soot
So one-third of our faults
were due to dirt.
We were constantly repairing the system and getting it working
I do remember at the time in December 1962
when the Atlas was officially switched on. I received an
official invitation, it was all set up and organised by Ferranti.
I was a humble research student
but I sensed that some big occasion was about to happen. When we had
finished commissioning it 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
The Atlas
was worth approximately two-and-a-half million quid
which you're talking about fifty million quid in today's money. The whole nation
would not be expected to install more than two or three of these machines
So clearly time on the machines had to be shared.
It was charged at about seven hundred and fifty pounds an hour
to eight hundred pounds an hour
When Atlas came along
a lot of problems
that were too difficult
to be solved
were able to be solved.
Looking back over fifty years
we can see
two or three absolutely fundamental and seminal ideas of computers that
first saw the light of day in Atlas.
First of all
virtual memory
which is a way of organising storage that we see on every modern computer
and secondly
a multitasking operating system. Again we see that on every modern computer
It still remained
a memorable computer
a good twenty years after it had stopped being used. If you mentioned the word Atlas
people said, oh Atlas
It was still counted as
something to have worked on
I certainly feel
very happy to have been I think
a component as you were in the design of Atlas. That was a time when we felt that
we were doing something that was a world-class. I think it's very important
that all major steps of any technology
be remembered
because that's when
something made a sudden change
and changed everybody's lives since
People thought that only one Atlas would be needed, ever
and now your washing machine has a more powerful computer in it than Atlas