The one and only man who kept pace with a computer for almost 30 minutes

One of the joys of researching the history of computing is tracking down people who worked in the industry in the early days that are happy to share their memories. This week I was lucky to talk to such a gentleman who led a team of “human-computers” in 1952 in the run-up to the development of the Harwell-WITCH computer now being restored at TNMOC.

The early 1950s was a pioneering time in the UK and the computing frontier towns of the time were Manchester, London, Cambridge and a village near Oxford. Of course, the Oxfordshire village of Harwell did happen to have the UK’s atomic energy research establishment on its doorstep!

Computing was an altogether more personal experience then: just a small team of young people equipped with voluminous mathematical tables and hand-cranked calculators.

At Harwell they were working week in and week out on calculations to support the design of Britain’s first atomic power stations – calculations that could take days, if not weeks, to complete.

That is until the electronic division completed its first electronic computer and presented it to the human-computer team. It wasn’t the fastest machine, but it was relentless and regularly worked well into the night.

The team of mathematicians weren’t convinced of course, and took a great deal of persuading to adopt the new machine. My contact had set himself in a race against the computer. He managed to keep pace for nearly 30 minutes – until his arm ached from turning the calculator crank handle!

Given a few prompts, our pioneer also remembered just what the first program he wrote for the machine did, and the fact that it worked first time.

Perhaps we can all remember our first time, or at least when it worked!

Finally, while some people are preparing for the London Marathon, at TNMOC we are now going through a rigorous selection procedure for volunteers who will attempt another race when the Harwell/WITCH computer is restored and running. Those with strong arms are eagerly sought.