Retrotechtacular: Nellie The School Computer

When did computers arrive in schools? That should be an easy question to answer, probably in the years around 1980. Maybe your school had the Commodore Pet, the Apple II, or if you are British, the Acorn BBC Micro in that period, all 8-bit microcomputers running a BASIC interpreter. That’s certainly the case for the majority of schools, but not all of them. In early 1969 the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World visited a school with a computer, and in both technology and culture it was a world away from those schools a decade later that would have received those BBC Micros.

The school in question was The Forrest Grammar School, Winnersh, about 35 miles west of London, and the computer in question was a by-then-obsolete National Elliott 405 mainframe that had been donated four years earlier by the British arm of the food giant Nestlé. The school referred to it as “Nellie” — a concatenation of the two brand names. It seems to have been the preserve of the older pupils, but the film below still shows the concepts of its operation being taught at all levels. We get a brief look at some of their software too — no operating systems here, everything’s machine code on paper tape — as a teacher plays a reaction timer game and the computer wins at noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe). One of them has even written a high-level language interpreter on which younger children solve maths problems. Of course, a 1950s mainframe with hundreds or thousands of tubes was never a particularly reliable machine, and we see them enacting their failure routine, before finally replacing a faulty delay line.

This is a fascinating watch on so many levels, not least because of its squeaky-clean portrayal of adolescent boys. This is what teenagers were supposed to be like, but by the late 1960s they must in reality have been anything but that away from the cameras. It’s a contrast with fifteen or twenty years later, the computer is seen as an extremely important learning opportunity in sharp opposition to how 8-bit computers in the 1980s came to be seen as a corrupting influence that would rot young minds.

Of course, these youngsters are not entirely representative of British youth in 1969, because as a grammar school the Forrest was part of the top tier of the selective education system prevalent at the time. There would certainly have been no computers of any sort in the local Secondary Modern school, and probably the BBC’s portrayal of the pupils would have been completely different had there been. In 1974 the Government abolished the grammar school system to create new one-size-fits-all comprehensive schools, one of which the Forrest school duly became. Following the vagaries of educational policy it is now an Academy, and there is probably not a room within it that does not contain a computer.

So what of Nellie? Because of the film there are plenty of online references to it in 1969, but we could only find one relating to its fate. It was finally broken up in 1971, with the only surviving component being a delay line. More than one Elliott machine survives in museum collections though, and your best chance in the UK of seeing one is probably at the National Museum Of Computing, in Bletchley.

37 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Nellie The School Computer

  1. We had a Wang computer delivered to my high school in the fall of 1971. Yes, Wang: http://wang3300.org/ . It ran teletypes and had a built-in basic interpreter. Core memory. The OS loaded from paper tape on teletypes. The order was submitted by one of the math teachers, but he took a sabbatical the year it arrived. Another guy and I kind of took over the machine since there was no one there with any understanding. We’d been doing GE timesharing on the teletypes the year before. It was phenomenally slow, and had hard partitioning of the memory between the three teletypes. If you had larger programs you had to reload the system from a different tape.

    We were running a program that calculated the number of ways to make change or a $5 bill(98,411), and they wanted to interrupt us with a program for calculating teacher’s salary ranges that was too big to run in a 1/3 of memory configuration. We refactored the program and managed to get it to run in a 1/3 partition.

    My friend later worked for Intel.

    1. Have you tried the 3300 emulator there? (it runs only under windows)

      http://wang3300.org/emu.html

      My high school bought three Wang 2200s in 1975 or so, with 8KB of RAM each. A few classes used them, but entry was via punched cards. Some of us would stay after school so we could sit at the actual machines and write games.

      Then in 1981 they bought 50 TRS-80 model 3s. Most of them didn’t have disk drives, but there was a network that tied all the cassette ports together. The teacher would tell all the students, “OK, type CLOAD now” and after waiting a moment, she would type CSAVE on her master computer, transferring the program from her machine to all the student’s computers.

    2. We had a Wang at Tekniska Läroverket in Helsingfors, Finland in 1974.
      This was during my technical College education.
      Lunarlander program was a favourite as a introduction, one challenge was to add a “graphical” representation of the landing procedure with a logging of the height over the lunar surface.

    1. Certainly was for me, I did my O-Level Computer Studies on one. You had to boot into CPM first, then run BASIC from a second floppy. I was very pleased to see that the NMOC that Jenny refers to above had a 380Z when I visited, but I’m sure to most people the nondescript black lump wouldn’t have meant much.

  2. At my high school (Maryland, USA) ca. 1972, there was actually a Computer Club. It was sponsored by a math teacher who did side work with a local time sharing company. The company let him keep an ASR-33 teletype in his office, which connected to the computer via a 300bps modem. They also agreed to let the club use the machine for free at our meetings and after school. I think the machine was a Honeywell, but I’m not sure. We programmed in BASIC. I still have some of the old yellow roll paper with my first programs on it in a folder somewhere. This includes a BASIC version of Tic-Tac-Toe that was so pathetic it could lose. Embarrassing.

  3. “The school referred to it as “Nellie” — a CONCATENATION of the two brand names.” (Capitalization mine)

    This is why I really enjoy reading Jenny’s articles…she has such a great command and understanding of the English language which is, sad to say, somewhat rare these days.

    Bill

    1. in the olden days, ‘Nestle’ was pronounced ‘nessel’ (like the verb: nestle) in the UK. At some point (not sure exactly when, probably in the 90s) it changed to the current, more continental, ‘nest-lay’.

  4. In 1968, my high school had an APL class taught by Ken Iverson, who wrote the language. IBM TJ Watson Research Center was nearby, and our computer class had a dialup connection to (one of) the IBM360 at TJ Watson. Fully interactive via an I/O Selectric terminal, probably 110 baud through a “Dataphone”. Was I ever disappointed when I got to Cornell University in 1969 and discover that nearly all computer use was via punch cards.

  5. Great film! 50 years ago at my Grammar school in Cheadle, Cheshire, one of the Maths masters had a friend in the computer department at Manchester University. He arranged for some of the senior pupils to have time on one of the mainframes, so we learned FORTRAN, and I wrote a programme that calculated and printed out a section of Naperian log Tables! We had to write the code out on squared paper and debug it by hand before sending them in to be converted to punched cards. Once the cards were verified we got to go and watch our programmes run, Great fun.

    Wen I got my first BBC Micro, I would write out routines on squared paper, before typing them into the computer. And when I first started writing HTML, about 20 years ago I would write it down on paper first, and check it the big red HTML reference book before typing it into Notepad!

  6. In 1974, my Junior High School had a Recomp III that a math teacher bought as scrap and repaired. We wrote programs in machine language and punched them on to paper tape in octal. Most other schools in the area that taught programming used “punch” cards that were filled in with a #2 pencil (yes, manually bubbling in the Hollerith codes), sent to the computer center via school mail, and print outs returned a couple of days later.

  7. In about 1975, our little school in Vancouver BC accessed the one computer in the district (an HP 3000F). Over the phone of course, through a TI Silent 700 terminal – of which I still have a working example! Acoustic coupler and all. Ahhh… 75bps. :)

  8. My High School was fortunate: it had a pair of logic breadboards with pin-plug wires, consisting of 8 or so JK flip flops, assorted gates, and input switches and indicator lights on the flip flops and an output display. In my senior year,[’68] I learned programming [in theory] for an IBM 1620, and was more than slightly astonished that the college I attended had an actual IBM 1620.

  9. In the mid ’70’s, the Philadelphia School District had (or had access to) a mainframe somewhere, and my school had a Teletype 33.

    In my high school in Massachusetts, a parent of a student was a big mahoff at Prime Computers (remember them?) and they donated a mini and several terminals. They were then able to move the TRS-80 mod I to the library.

  10. In my school we had computers with Intel 4040, programmed in machine code with switches and LEDs. That was around 1980. Later they bought ABC80, a Swedish BASIC computer with a Z80. It was more fun to use them…

  11. My first exposure to computers in school would have been mid-late 80s. Not entirely sure what model but I do seem to remember playing Granny’s Garden on the thing. IIRC that school also ended up with some of the early Macs (with the screen inside the case). In high school it was a mix of Macs and PCs (I got busted trying to pirate Visual Basic 4.0 from the computer labs :)

  12. My school had a large bank of abacus. Programmed it with Roman math. Speed somewhere in the negative hertz, but we’re still not sure, as “hello world” hasn’t finished yet.

  13. I’ll top that one. My high school never had machines present until after I graduated. And sadly they remained badly confused by the technology. I am aware of the Elliot family of machines, they were mentioned in a website regarding the wonders of the DIY TTL based processor technology.

  14. The idea that a significant portion of British gradeschoolers in the 1960s were raging hippies in their off hours is just ludicrous. Even today many have to wear uniforms.

    My school was one of 5 in the area that HP2000’s in 1975 or 6. We had the “E” model.

  15. In January, 1965, San Juan High School, in the Sacramento area of CA was given a Bendix G15. At the time we were told it was the first computer in the nation specifically for student use. It was located in a side room of a classroom, and computer programming classes were available to Seniors at first, but successive years allowed lower class students from the entire school district.

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