Reinventing The Harwell Dekatron

A huge number of modern replicas of retro computers pass our screens here at Hackaday, and among them are an astonishing variety of technologies. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be present in the days when the building blocks of computing were coming together may have missed out on understanding gate-level operation of a computer. Put your super-powerful and super-complex systems-on-chip aside sometime and dig into the details of their distant ancestors.

Most such machines follow a very conventional architecture, so it is something of a surprise to find a project recreating a modern version of something far more obscure. The Harwell Dekatron, also known as the WITCH, can be found at the National Museum Of Computing in Bletchley, UK, and [David Anders] is building a modern all-electronic replica of it.

The original machine is currently the world’s oldest working digital computer, a hybrid electromechanical computer built at the start of the 1950s  to perform calculations for British nuclear scientists. It was retired by the end of that decade and found its way — via a technical college, a museum, and a period of storage in a council archive — to Bletchley where it was restored to working order by 2012. Its special feature is the use of dekatron discharge tubes as memory, allowing an instant visual display of its working as it happens.

[David]’s replica uses modern logic chips to replicate the building blocks of the Harwell Dekatron, and his write-up is as fascinating for that as it is for his study of the real thing in the museum. We ran into [Dave] showing off this project at the Hackaday Dallas event last year and are excited to learn of the advancements since then from his Hackaday.io page. He’s put his research and designs on GitHub, and a series of YouTube videos, the introduction to which we’ve put below the break.

We featured the Harwell Dekatron last year when we visited the National Museum Of Computing. If you are able to get to Bletchley, it and the rest of the museum’s huge collection are well worth a look.

3 thoughts on “Reinventing The Harwell Dekatron

  1. Oh how I love these kinds of things! We’ve gone from huge computer systems to microchips in such a short span of time. As someone who is studying low level programming, this kind of stuff is really interesting. I would love to see this Dekatron in person!

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