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.

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Vintage IBM 1403 Printer Problem Evades an Easy Fix

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has two operational IBM 1401 mainframes, which use IBM 1403 high-speed printers. They aren’t some decades-old notion of “high speed” that barely looks sluggish today, either. These monsters slam out ten lines per second thanks to a rotating chain of type slugs and an array of electromagnetic hammers. Every 11.1 microseconds, a character in the chain would be lined up with a hammer, and if the control circuitry identified it as a character that needed to be printed, the hammer behind the paper would drive the paper into the print ribbon and the slug, putting an imprint of the character onto the paper. When one of these printers failed with a sync error, it kicked off some serious troubleshooting to diagnose the problem.

The IBM 1403’s type chain has a repeating set of characters that spins around at high speed. Unlike a typewriter or label maker, the hammers are not inside this unit. The hammers are on the outside, and work by pressing the paper onto the type slugs as the required characters line up.

Investigation of the problem ultimately led to an intermittent connection in a driver card due to a broken PCB trace, but by then some fuses had been blown as well. In the end the printer was brought back online, but possibly with a slightly damaged coil on one of the hammers.

[Ken]’s writeup on the repair process is highly detailed and walks through the kind of troubleshooting and repairs involved when solving problems with vintage electronics. Electrical fundamentals might be the same, but a deep understanding of not only the architecture but also the failure modes of vintage hardware is needed in order to troubleshoot effectively.

If IBM 1401 mainframes and fixing 1403 printers sounds familiar, it’s because a printer fix has been done before. That was due to a different problem, but still a challenging task to narrow down and fix.

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 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.

IBM 1401 Runs FORTRAN II Once More

The IBM 1401 is undeniably a classic computer. One of IBM’s most “affordable” mainframes, it ruled the small business computing world of the 1960’s. Unfortunately, computers aren’t often thought of as treasured heirlooms, only a handful of these machines survive today. The computer history museum has two machines. One from Germany, and the other recovered from a basement in Connecticut back in 2008. [CuriousMarc] and the rest of the team at the museum have been working diligently to restore the 1401, and they’ve hit quite a milestone — They can now compile and run FORTRAN II code.

Getting the 1401 to run FORTRAN II itself is quite an accomplishment. The hardest part was dealing with the 729 vacuum column tape drives. The team spent years building a hardware emulator which takes the place of the real drives. The emulator is driven by an old PC running windows. Tape images are stored as files, which can be loaded, rewound, and run just like a real 729.

Emulators are great, but [Mark] and his team wanted this to run on the real hardware. They first had to re-create a FORTRAN compiler tape. They ran a tape copier program on the 1401, then loaded an image of the compiler on their emulator. The computer dutifully copied the image to a real tape drive.

The team also needed a punched card deck of FORTRAN source code to compile and run. The first example in the FORTRAN manual is a Hilbert Matrix program. The team could have used a keypunch machine to punch the cards for the program, but that is a painstaking and error-prone process. One mistake, and they would have to re-punch an entire card — much like using an old typewriter with no White-Out or correction ribbon. Instead, they typed the source into a PC, then converted the file to a tape image. A small program instructed the 1401 to punch the source code out on cards for them.

At the moment of truth, shown first in the video, the 1401 reads FORTRAN II from tape, pulls in the source code from punched cards, compiles, runs, and then prints the result on its line printer. All the original hardware singing along just like it did in 1959.

If you haven’t been to the Computer History Museum yet, check it out! It’s also the site of Vintage Computing Festival West.

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Game Like it is 1983

The first computer I ever physically saw — I think — was an IBM System/3. You might not remember them. They were business computers for businesses that couldn’t justify a big mainframe. They were “midrange.” Nevermind that the thing probably had the memory and processing speed of the CPU inside my mouse. Time progressed and IBM moved on to the System/3x (for example, the System/32). Next up was the AS/400 and finally the IBM i, which is still in production. Here’s a secret, though, most of the code I’ve seen running on an IBM i dates back to at least the System/3 days and maybe even before that.

If you are interested in history, or midrange computers (which are mainframe-like in their operation), you might want to actually play with a real machine. A quick glance at eBay tells me that you might be able to get something workable for about $1000. Maybe. That’s a bit much. What if you could get time on one for free? Turns out, you can.

The Cloud Option

Head over to and register for an account. This won’t be instant — mine took a day or two. The system is for educational purposes, so be nice and don’t use it for commercial purposes. You get 150MB of storage (actually, some of the documentation says 250MB, and I have not tested it). While you are waiting for your account, you’ll need to grab a 5250 terminal emulator and adjust your thinking, unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool IBM guy.

Even though the IBM i looks like an old 1970’s midrange, the hardware is quite modern with a 64-bit CPU (and the architecture can handle 128 bits) and well-known stability. However, the interface is, well, nostalgic.


Depending on your host computer, there are several IBM 5250 terminal programs available. They recommend tn5250 or tn5250j which use Java. However, I installed Mochasoft’s emulator into my Chrome browser. It is a 30-day free trial, but I figure in 30 days I’ll be over it, anyway.

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The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

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A 2,200 Pound Personal Computer

[Connor Krukosky] wanted to buy another computer. Even though he is only 18, he had his first computer at 18 months old. He’s had plenty since then and his interest in computers led him to pursue a career in electrical engineering. A few years ago, [Conner] started collecting vintage computers.

He’d bought up some Apple computers, terminals, and even a Data General minicomputer. Then he found a notice that Rutgers was auctioning off an IBM z890 mainframe computer. People warned [Conner] that this wasn’t a desktop workstation, it was a 2,200 pound case that probably wouldn’t fit through standard doors.

He was undeterred. He won the auction for under $240. The real expense, of course, would be moving it. He planned to make two trips: One to strip the machine to parts and bring some parts back and then a second trip to get the remaining parts.

You can see in the video below that he had a lot of adventure moving the beast. Things didn’t fit and even some excavation had to happen to get the computer in his basement.

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