Retrotechtacular: ERNIE

Wherever you may live in the world, who do you wish to smile upon you and deliver good fortune? You may be surprised to discover that for a significant number of Brits this role is taken by someone called [Ernie].

What, [Jim Henson]’s Ernie from Sesame Street‘s famous duo Bert and Ernie? Sadly not, because the owner of a [Rubber Duckie] can’t offer you the chance of a million quid every month. Instead, [Ernie] is a computer that has been anthropomorphised in the national imagination. More properly referred to as E.R.N.I.E, for Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, he is the machine that picks the winning bond numbers for the Premium Bonds, a lottery investment scheme  run by the British Government.

Brits have been able to buy £1 bonds, up to 50,000 of them today, since the 1950s, and every month they are entered into a drawing from which ERNIE picks the winners. The top two prizes are a million pounds, but for most bond holders the best they can hope for is the occasional £25 cheque. Premium Bonds are often bought for young children so a lot of Brits will have a few, often completely forgotten. Prizes never expire, so if you are the holder of old bonds you should consider asking National Savings and Investments whether anything is owed to you.

The Great Grandfather of Premium Bond Drawings

The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The current ERNIE is the fourth-generation model, but our attention today is on its 1950s ancestor. In a way it’s the most interesting of the machines because it has an unusual pedigree, being a creation of the Post Office Research Station, at Dollis Hill, London. As such it came from the lab of the Colossus engineer [Tommy Flowers], and is described as being a descendant of the now-famous but then still top-secret first digital computer used by the World War Two codebreakers. It’s thus a fascinating study for the student of computer history as well as for its role in British postwar social history, because it represents the only glimpse (had they known it at the time) that the British public had of the technology that had helped them so much a decade earlier.

A significant effort was made to ensure that the draw was truly random, and the solution employed by [Flowers] and his team was thoroughly tested before each draw. The thermionic noise generated across a neon tube was sampled, and this random voltage delivered the truly random numbers used to generate the winning bond numbers. The machine’s construction is extremely reminiscent of its wartime predecessor, however it is as well to bear in mind that it owes this to the standard racking and paint used in British telephone exchanges of the day. Gone though are the octal tubes, and in their place are their more familiar miniature successors.

We have two films for you showing this incarnation of ERNIE in action. The first is a National Savings promotional film which explains ERNIE’s purpose, while the second shows us the Minister of the time starting the first draw. Believe it or not, this was a cause of major national excitement at the time.

This ERNIE was replaced in 1972 and given to the Science Museum in London. Meanwhile we’ve featured Colossus here, with our description last summer of the replica machine built by the National Museum Of Computing, at Bletchley Park.

By the way, if you are an ERNIE bond holder – Good luck!

20 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: ERNIE

      1. Me either…

        I had 17 quid worth, bought for me as a kid in 1s and 2s.. Now, looked into it in the 90s and there was some stupidity where, they only became valid if I registered them at 18, but also some crap where there was now a minimum purchase or minimum registration amount of 50 quid. So it looked like I had to buy an additional 33 quid worth, (possibly 50) to enable validation and win anything at all. It was all very confusing the info available then, and it was unclear whether my 17 worth of numbers were actually included in any draw up until I was 18, and by lack of registering them or whatever after 18, whether they were entered after that. Additionally, at that point in time, it looked like you could only redeem them in 50 quid amounts… by mailing them off, but only if after 18 you’d registered them or some crap.

        Still probably got them somewhere, every few years I pull them out and search winner database just in case, but it don’t look real hopeful.

        1. Just looked up, it’s 100 minimum for a counter buy now, but you can buy 50 month with a standing order debit.

          With a four and a half percent chance per hundred per annum, looks like I’ve had about a 30 percent chance of any win (Like mostly a 25 quid prize) in 40 years, so can’t quite call shenanigans on whether my numbers are in or not on that odds.

  1. Sorry, did you have a point buried under all that racist drivel? Referring to a system of government that supports those not born wealthy as “corrupt communism” makes me think you’re American. If that’s correct, it hardly puts you in a position to refer to anyone else as dumb.

      1. We have much better whitening these days so we can produce very good looking numbers with even poor random noise source.

        Considering how few numbers they need to produce they have plenty of time to gain entropy and whiten it until it performs.

  2. Jim Henson’s Ernie was random enough. Actually, every Ernie I’ve ever heard of has been a nearly constant source of randomness. There must be something special in the name. :-)

      1. Yea, thats another “random” Ernie or in this case Ernest as in “Earnest Saves Christmas”, “Earnest Scared Stupid”, “Earnest Goes to Camp”… I tell you, its something about the name. :-)

  3. What? It’s a bond scheme. Citizens lend money to the government, by buying bonds. And instead of getting paid back with interest, the interest goes into a big pot, and they award prizes from it.

    For the average citizen, the return on a few quid’s worth of bonds isn’t worth the money to invest. But if you make it into a lottery, there’s bigger prizes, and an element of chance. People are happy with that, we’d rather have a 1000:1 chance of winning 50 quid, than a certainty of 5p.

    It’s a lottery, but you can always sell your bonds back to the government and get your stake back. And the same stake is entered for every draw. So it’s not a massive ripoff like actual lotteries.

    Of course according to RW, a load of fuckers got into the system and changed the rules at some point. Nobody pays a lot of attention to Premium Bonds, which is why they hold on to any winnings for as long as it takes to claim them. Well, they did, maybe they’ve changed that too.

    But back in the day it was a great idea.

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