The Interesting Fate Of Kenya’s First Computers

If you are an enthusiast for 1950s computer hardware, you are probably out of luck when it comes to owning a machine of your own. Your best chance will be to join the staff of one of the various museums that preserve and operate these machines, at which you can indulge your passion to your heart’s content. But what if we told you that there is a 1950s computer available for pick-up at any time, to whoever is prepared to go and get it and has suitable transport? You’d be making plans straight away, wouldn’t you? The computer in question is real, but there’s a snag. It’s at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just at the start of international waters off the coast of Kenya. The story of Kenya’s early computing and how the machine met its fate is the subject of a fascinating article from a year or two ago on owaahh.com that had us riveted from start to finish.

Like large state-owned enterprises worldwide, the Kenyan railway and power monopolies were among the first commercial customers for computing. In the final years of the British Empire, those were ordered from a company in London, International Computers & Tabulators, and it was their ICT1202 that served the railway company. The article goes into detail about the history of the company’s East African operation, the problems of running a tube-based computer in an African climate without air-conditioners, and the 1202’s demise and replacement. We’ll not spill the beans here on how the computer ended up on the seabed and how its replacement ended up being spirited away to China, for that you’ll have to read it all. It’s worth saying, the author also has a personal website in which he goes into much more detail about his experience with computers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Not had enough ancient computer tech? A couple of years ago we toured the primordial electronic computer, Colossus, and also took a look at the National Museum Of Computing that houses it.

20 thoughts on “The Interesting Fate Of Kenya’s First Computers

    1. Not so hard. In the early A.M., just need to pay a rent-a-cop to switch on the components in sequence order after turning on the bakery ovens next door (to avoid power surge). Then load your punch Hollerith cards, put in the hopper weight, and flip a switch that probably said [START]. Just make sure there is no Puff-Adders sleeping in the warm memory drum. You wouldn’t want Kenya’s finest to try and put a bullet in the snake and missing it, taking out a irreplaceable ICT memory drum. Then your only recourse is to dump the whole system 5-miles east in the Indian Ocean to help the coral reef build up to avoid paying export/import tariffs. (READ THE STORY)

      Can’t blame the Kenyan’s on this boondoggle. It was clearly a British decision from what I can see. Except for the trigger-happy Kenyan cop…

    1. The fact that it was tipped in the ocean is probably what’s going to preserve it for future historians, while all the other computers neatly kept in museums will eventually face destruction by fire or by mismanagement and all information about them will be lost in the digital black hole.

      1. I dunno, oceans aren’t known for their thin wire and glass capsule preserving properties. I suppose you could use the wreckage to somehow figure out how to rebuild one, like the Antikythera Mechanism. But you could do that just as well from a diagram.

        Unless they somehow sealed it into an oceanic vault, I don’t hold out much hope for it even now.

        Actually one bit of hope, I’ve just remembered, isn’t it copper that they put on boats to repel barnacles?

          1. Suppose not, just thought it might repel the rapid encrustacion that seems to happen to anything that falls in the sea for five minutes.

            Maybe there are oils in the punch readers, and perhaps horrible PCBs (the chemical, not the flat ones) in components here and there. Killing the shit out of everything for kilometres would keep it preserved, for about 3 months anyway.

            If you want to see a huge valve-based computer that’s halfway dissolved into the sea, there’s an addon for Bioshock 2 that lets you explore through one!

          1. New sea HVDC power cables in Europe are still shielded with a thick layer of lead, so apparently, dumping 100’s tons of lead in the sea isn’t a problem, unlike the .5 grams that keeps the solder in your electronics nice and soft so it doesn’t crack, stop working, and causes the whole thing to end up in a landfill.

          2. maybe some gold too .. and that should fare well even in salt water..

            @jaap, didn’t know that, got me doing some more reading, and it seems lead, bronze, copper actually all seem to last very well in saltwater on their own, when they’re in contact with other metals it seems to corrode a lot faster.

            In other news, there’s a HUGE potential problem on the North Sea coast of Belgium where they dumped enormous amounts of german unused chemical weapons at the end of WW2.
            src: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/decaying-weapons-world-war-II-threaten-waters-worldwide-180961046/

          3. follow up on the chemical weapons dumps, here on the Belgian shore we’re talking about an estimated 35,000 T of 77-milimeter German mustard shells from World War 1 (!). ONE, see these shells are about a century old by now.

  1. “British intelligence later reported that the machine had somehow made its way to China where it had been carefully disassembled and analyzed and used as a learning tool for their computer industry.”

    Sounds about right

  2. Thinking of The National Museum of Computing… It is one of the few museums where the attendants really know about the exhibits, e.g. they are more than happy to whip out the circuit diagrams and discuss them with you. *Highly* recommended!

    Why not go to the large and good Dunstable Downs hamfest in the morning of 17th May, and then TNMoC (or Bletchley Park if you insist) in the afternoon? I will.
    FFI: http://www.ddrcbootsale.org/

    1. The Computer History Museum in Santa Clara, CA has a lot of folks who do a bang-up job.

      (For those in graphics, they have “THE Tea Pot”)

      (And the “Shares” solution should work…)

  3. A typical bureaucratic solution to a problem.

    Rather than simply switch it off, and scrap it, the machine had to be “re-exported”.

    Could they not simply, in the manner of Catch 22 put a bunch of shares in the rail car and tipped the shares in to the Indian ocean.

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