On Digital Archaeology

One of the key speakers at the Vintage Computing Festival we are holding in June is Christine Finn, author of “Artifacts: an archaeologist’s year in Silicon Valley”.

At times I do feel like a traditional archaeologist with all their challenges, delights and disappointments. We don’t often get to select our digging sites, but often get called in to be emergency archaeologists to rescue computers and systems from an imminent wrecking ball or the local authority tip.

We often hear tales from visitors about machines that are no longer used and that will be lost if we don’t do something about it soon. Sadly, that machine is often beyond salvaging, and frequently it is a system that we would have liked to have had. The lost machine then magically acquires an almost mythical status – it would have been rare, complete, fully operational and with all the original manuals and software!

This past weekend saw the museum rescue gang heading off to a small office in Aylesbury to collect an ICL System 25 ‘together with disks, printer and all the manuals’. We didn’t know quite what to expect. When we arrived the reason for the miraculous survival of this machine was apparent – it was at the far end of an office block, up a steep and complicated staircase! It was to require all our best (and improving) excavation techniques.

The System 25 was a very popular machine in the UK for small companies and in particular for point-of-sale systems. It was an unusual computer in that it operated in decimal rather than binary. It was based on the US designed Singer System 10, that had originally been designed by Friden. Singer acquired Friden, and then in 1976, ICL acquired Singer. The machine we were rescuing was a later model System 25+ consisting of the processor cabinet, a disk cabinet containing two EDS80 80MB removable disk drives, and a 132 column line printer.

The pair of 80MB disk drives were dismantled and carefully man-handled down the stairs, the removable covers from the (actually quite small) processor cabinet we removed and despite its lack of wheels carefully got down to the ground floor.

Which left the line printer that needed to be moved! In the 1980s line printers were built to last, no flimsy plastic or aluminium covers, but heavy sheet steel which also covered a large transformer and a heavy motor. It was impossible to take it apart, so five of us struggled with it down the stairs – one step at a time, with multiple stops to catch our breath! One hour later it was outside as good as new.

The huge collection of manuals is particularly interesting. It allows us to reconstruct the use of computers in this company since the purchase of their first System 10 in September 1980. The site log reports the engineers installing their first system, subsequent upgrades to an ICL System 25, and finally the installation of their System 25+. Their last ICL machine seems to have been the Unix based DRS3000.

I can only imagine the look of dismay when ICL delivered the machine and were told it was to be installed upstairs, but this simple fact seems to have saved the system for TNMOC! I suppose archaeologists find exactly the same thing: the more accessible, moveable artifacts have long since disappeared.

Our next steps are to examine and document the hardware we rescued, plan the operation to make safe copies of the disks, and of course to continue the research into the back story of this very popular British computer. Once we have secure copies of the system and application software, we plan to construct a System 25 emulator that anyone can run, and of course the system will be on display at the museum in our Large Systems gallery.