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EDSAC replica project begins production

EDSAC replica project begins production

Modern manufacturing techniques, courtesy of Teversham Engineering, Cambridge, are being used to bring a piece of computing history back to life.

The National Museum of Computing, housed at Bletchley Park, is working on an ambitious project to recreate the historic EDSAC, the first user-accessible generaly-purpose computer.

The Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, to give the device its full name, was first switched on in 1949 and ran for nine years before being scrapped and - as is the case for many classic computer systems now recognised for their historical impact - destroyed for its scrap-metal value. While the original machine was comprised of 140 chassis units, a mere three of these are known to have survived - hardly enough to get the system back up and running.

Twelve months ago, the museum announced the launch of the EDSAC Project which looks to create replica components for the machine that will be interchangeable with original parts and hopefully near-indistinguishable - but easily manufactured using modern methods and available parts. It was an ambitious undertaking, but one which the museum sees as having inestimable historical value. 'EDSAC marks a hugely important early milestone in computing,' explained project manager Andrew Herbert of the subject of his team's attentions. 'Until EDSAC, general purpose computers had been purely experimental systems locked away in research laboratories.

'The late Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes, now widely regarded as the father of British computing, had the vision and the drive to realise the potential of computers to take on the mathematical calculations that underpin scientific research. He led the team that built the original EDSAC for the Mathematical Laboratory at Cambridge University. The impact of that new facility contributed quickly and directly to Nobel prize-winning scientific research, and to LEO, the first computer used in business. The impact of EDSAC has been profound, so we aim to celebrate the achievements of its creators and to inspire future generations of engineers and computer scientists.
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Now, the museum has announced its first major milestone: the creation of replica chassis, modelled on one of the original surviving cabinets and recreated for manufacturing on a CAD/CAM system. 'Over the past year we have researched EDSAC's design and original construction, so this week marks the exciting transition from research to production,' enthused Herbert. 'It has been inspiring to see in detail the chassis design and manufacture using computer techniques that EDSAC effectively paved the way for. With this important step accomplished we are confident that we can complete the daunting task of replicating EDSAC as it was in 1949.'

That task will take some time to complete, however: the team believes that it will take until 2015 to get the fully-functional EDSAC replica up and running. Those interested in the subject, however, will be able to keep a close eye on proceedings: everything is being done in full view of the public at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

'We are delighted to have the EDSAC Project at TNMOC. The educational value of this machine to our many visiting education groups will be enormous,' claimed museum director David Hartley of the restoration effort. 'Pupils and students, so-called "digital natives," who have grown up almost casually using computers as part of their everyday lives will gain an understanding of where general purpose computing started out - and how far it has come in less than a lifetime. EDSAC will be an enormously important addition to our other displays of historic working computers.'

Funding for the project has come from a consortium of companies and private donors - including advertising giant Google - led by Hermann Hauser, the co-founder of ARM predecessor Acorn Computers. More information on the project can be found on the official website.

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