Britain's 'Atlas' computer that was world's most powerful in 1962 commemorated

A British computer which was the world's most powerful when it switched on 50 years ago was commemorated this week by the scientists and engineers who operated it.

Atlas was so powerful it instantly doubled Britain's scientific computing capacity when it switched on.

The machine pioneered ideas such as virtual memory - which underpin today's PCs and smartphones.

The laboratory which housed Atlas ran through 30 miles of paper computer tape a week at its peak, and was run by a tiny team compared to the huge numbers who worked at IBM.

Scientists and engineers who worked on Atlas gathered this week to commemorate the pioneering machine - a memento of a time when Britain led the world in computing.

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It could operate at a speed of roughly a million instructions per second - and was inaugurated on 7 Decemeber 1962.
 
The first production Atlas was inaugurated at the University on 7 December 1962 by Sir John Cockcroft, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was Director of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority.

It was claimed that when the first Atlas arrived, it roughly doubled the UK’s computing scientific capability.

A total of six Atlas 1 and Atlas 2 computers were delivered between 1962 and 1966.

Professor Simon Lavington, who started using Atlas as a research student in 1962, said: “The Atlas event will bring together, probably for the last time, a unique group of industrialists, academics and end-users who contributed to a world-class project which brought a huge increase of computing power to the UK’s scientific community in the 1960s”.

Professor Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at The University of Manchester, said: “Atlas was in many ways the most remarkable of all of the machines designed at Manchester.

“Fifty years later, the concept of single-level store – what we now call virtual memory – is vital to the operation of everything from smart phones to supercomputers, and we owe that idea to the Atlas designers.

“Manchester built the world's first stored program computer, the Baby, in 1948, but it's important to remember that that wasn't our only contribution. Atlas was spectacularly fast for its day and highly innovative, and we are still building exciting new machines here to this day.”

Hugh Devonald who headed Ferranti’s Software Division, said in 1962: “Atlas is in fact claimed to be the world’s most powerful computing system.  By such a claim it is meant that, if Atlas and any of its rivals were presented simultaneously with similar large sets of representative computing jobs, Atlas should complete its set ahead of all other computers.”

The Science Research Council installed an Atlas at its Chilton Computer Laboratory in 1964, for use by the UK’s scientific community.

By 1966 the Laboratory’s Director, Jack Howlett, was able to write in his annual Report:  “In a typical week we run 2,500 jobs, input 800,000 cards and 30 miles of paper tape, print 1.8 million lines of output, punch 50,000 cards, handle 1,200 reels of magnetic tape.

“We have 250 projects on our books from university users and are usually doing work on 100 of these…. Our experience over the past year has shown that the Atlas central processor, with the Supervisor which is an integral part of the system, is an exceedingly powerful and flexible device which deals smoothly and efficiently with a heavy load of very varied work”.

In 1975 Bernard Swann, the Ferranti Sales Director, wrote:  “One of the remarkable features of the Atlas project was the small number of staff compared with the large numbers employed by IBM.”

Robin Kerr, who was part of the Atlas software team and who has worked for many years in America, said: “The Atlas project produced the patents for Virtual Memory. I would claim that Virtual Memory is the most significant computer design development in the last 50 years. Certainly it is the most widely used”.


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