Shuffling chairs

It’s been a long time since we last blogged – and with good reason! Like most everything else, we have been impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the committee has continued to meet and plan throughout. You can look forward to our semi-regular blogging service resuming soon.

After 2 years as Chair of the Historic Computing Committee, Troy Astarte is sadly leaving Newcastle University for pastures new. On behalf of the whole Committee I want to thank Troy for their hard work during their tenure, and wish them all the best in their new adventures.

Troy has some parting words:

From the moment I was first asked to join the Committee in Spring 2019, and the immediately subsequent moment in which I was asked to run it, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this group. Inaugurating the new System/360-67 exhibition was probably the greatest achievement in my tenure; keeping the Committee going through COVID was the greatest challenge. This group has achieved so much given the limited resources at its disposal and I am sure the Historic Computing Collection will someday soon realise its true role as a significant resource for engagement, research, and even teaching for Newcastle University and the wider Newcastle community. Stepping down as chair was difficult, but I am very pleased to continue to remain involved from a distance; and I hope that real and useful connections can now be established with the History of Computing Collection at my new institution, Swansea University.

Troy’s shoes will be hard to fill! As an initially interim measure, Brian Randell agreed to act as interim chair, and now co-chair. “Co-Chair?” I hear you read? That’s right…

I’m delighted to be able to write that John Lloyd has agreed to join us and assume Co-Chairman of the Committee: specifically with a remit to aid in our relationships with the wider University. Anyone who knows of John’s history in the University will appreciate how well suited he is to this task. Welcome, John!

CT/HDB — Nearly there! (?)

It is as though the Fairy Godmother waved her wand some time around New Year’s Day: Claremont Tower (or as it’s now called: The Henry Daysh Building) was opened for academic activities in early January, and since mid-January students and staff have been milling around it (from the Ground upwards) as though the last 16 months had never happened.

Even last week, it was all rather strange: on the Ground Floor, University people were picking their way through hard-hatted workers; the Lobby was barriered off still; the floor was still concrete; the Basement was not finished by any means, full of contractors and muck, and Out of Bounds.

But today … today! … suddenly the Fairy Godmother’s spell was complete! In the Lobby, the floors are all carpeted; the furniture has all been delivered; students are sitting comfortably and amiably all over the place; and – suddenly – the Basement is equally complete!

And  – sorry, USB and EBB dwellers –  the HDB is wonderful! Comfortable, cosy, beautiful, perfectly appointed …

Below Basement Level it’s still all hard-hat, Out of Bounds – still a building site. (It’s not clear to me if McAlpine’s have stopped at the Basement, or if the lower levels will also be given a thorough going over — I don’t know. [It’s a bit like the mystery of the Bridge over Claremont Road: millions spent on the building, and on refacing the entire block … but the original, bare, 1965 concrete is still what spans the road itself, complete with streaks developed over 55 years — is that it, then?!])

A big “High”

For us “curators” (i.e. me), it was a really big “High” today, exploring some of the new building: there is a wonderful tranquil, comfortable feeling about it, as though the building itself is happy.  It has never been so quiet in the building – even in the Sub-Basement – since September 2018! I feel that proper work can start again on the Collection, and that before too long others will be able to join in! Here’s a few amateur snaps for you:

Floor Plans

The Lobby, looking towards Claremont Road.

Turning round from the above, one of the very many “Encounter spaces”. If you looked through the window on the left (after it’s been cleaned), you would see the Fine Art Buiilding.

To the right of the “Encounter space” above, here is a staircase to the exit to “Claremont Quadrangle” – you can see the Old Library and Merz Court. But what is that other staircase leading down?

… it’s the New Basement! They have extended it beyond where the wall used to be. The old doors were probably about where the bottom step is. Maybe.

Look right from where the stairs are, and you can see where the Director’s office used to be: this (and about 3 offices to the right of it) have been turned into one large room. (They took out every single wall in the Basement, and have rebuilt it entirely.)

Look right again, and you are looking back down the length of what used to be the corridor and all those offices: again, one huge room. You can see a McAlpine’s man who is cleaning the kitchen at the far end.

Looking back from the other end of that room – stairs at the far end.

On the other side of the Basement are lockers, at least one shower, and women’s, men’s, gender-neutral and disabled toilets.

Meanwhile …

… in the Sub-Basement, evidence of lots of people still hard at work –– all the services (electrics, networks, heating, water) start and end down here. Nearly done!

Rubbish piled up waiting for the Last Skip to arrive.

That’s the NUHCC Manuals Collection cupboard (I rescued the manuals themselves and put them in the locked storeroom!), and that’s our filing cabinets. That’s the old toilet, behind, now a heating centre for the Tower, full of gurgling noises .. which is very uncomfortable, if you’re nervous of floods.

And now it’s the “real” Daysh Building’s turn (wonder what they’ll call it when it’s done?!]. Professor Daysh, by the way, was a prominent Geographer: see this now-dated link.

Inauguration Day!

What’s this?

It’s the bit of cable (7.1Kg in weight) which shut down NUMAC’s computers in 1985. It’s one of our artefacts, and it’s now on display here …


… behind the CPU Console of the IBM S/360-67, the Computing Laboratory’s first giant mainframe, now on display in the Urban Sciences Building, home of the School of Computing. The display was inaugurated in grand style on 13th June 2019: a Day of Celebration entitled “50 Years of Campus-wide Computing“.

Yes, the 360-67 arrived in 1967 … but it was in 1969 (i.e. 50 years ago) that we started to run the machine under the Michigan Terminal System, which proved to be a quantum leap forward for computing services at Newcastle (and Durham) Universities. MTS paved the way for time-sharing systems: we ran it extremely successfully (on different mainframes) for 23 years.

We welcomed about 100 guests to the event, some of them rather prestigious, and unveiled the first four cabinets of exhibits from the Newcastle University Historical Computing Collection – two of them comprising items pertaining to the 360-67.

The great thing about the day was that this story was told by the people directly involved: Professor Page, Mike Alexander (University of Michigan), Elizabeth Barraclough, and Professor Brian Randell.

You can read an informative report, and you can see a (subtitled) video of the speakers, at our special page, which is now available: please do have a look (and let us know of any improvements you’d like to see!)

A moment in time: the 370 arrives

It’s ages since I made an entry in the Blog, so I’m adding a little one (and 7 pics!) to remind you that it exists. Another, more important entry, is currently in preparation, describing the marvellous success of our Official Inauguration on the 13th June. (Frantic catching-up on other things, on the parts of all concerned with that success, has delayed the writing of that blog entry.)

Meanwhile, here’s another little gem, found just last Friday in the heaps of papers in Roger Broughton’s old office. This one is a letter describing how the IBM System/370-168 was to be delivered early in 1975: it’s a tiny, but classic, example of planning by the Operations Manager (i.e. Roger).

It is a letter to the City Police dealing with how Claremont Road was going to need special traffic controls when the new mainframe was to be delivered. Roger contacted the Police, they sent along a couple of chaps, discussions ensued, involving an IBM rep. as well, and conclusions were drawn which are described here. Installation of a mainframe was planned like a military operation.

We always go on about what a revolution the previous mainframe (the S/360-67) was, and what a monster of a computer it was. And indeed it was, as described by the speakers on Inauguration Day.

But the 370-168, which succeeded the 360-67 in 1975, dwarfed the 360, not only in power, but in weight (“4 tons of cables” is the first item to be delivered here). The 370’s circuitry was cooled by cold water (see the bottom of this page on Roger’s website ), so it had its own chilled water plant, as well as a new A/C plant. It weighed about 24 tonnes (twice as much as the 360!) according to Roger’s website . When the Amdahl 5860 arrived 10 years later, the corner had been turned: everything weighed less, but the power was immensely more than the 370’s.

A bit of a contrast to that phone in your pocket, whose uncanny powers, as we observe the 370 arriving, resemble a gargantuan alien spaceship looking down from the heavens on medieval peasants ploughing their fields. (Purely, need I add, in terms of computing power!).

(Well we know what date this was.)

Just so you know what mainframe cables looked like. (Roger is actually sitting on the cables taken out from the Amdahl in 1992, but it gives you an idea of what came in that first delivery, above.)

What nice-looking  young men, with all the world ahead of them! My guess is that they are IBM Engineers, commissioning the 370.

I had to put this one in too: they were obviously having a great time.

This is what they were looking at: the front console of the IBM S/370-168.


How to create a Computing Laboratory (!)

Quite apart from everything else going on (IBM 360-67 exhibitions, Sir Robert McAlpine gutting and rebuilding Claremont Tower, Thompsons of Prudhoe removing every last shred of asbestos…) I am continuing to “consolidate the Collection”.

When not swanning off on holiday, or sitting in the garden reading (which as any fule kno, is what every retired person does, most of the time), I visit the Collection twice a week, the goals being (a) to keep an anxious eye on it while the builders are in and (b), the greater goal, to ensure that we know exactly what we have, by checking  Roger’s database against the actual artefacts.

Goal B is now almost complete, after two years  ( I will be delighted to tell you how it has taken two years).  Of the 400+ items in Roger’s database, all but a score or so have now been accounted for.  (Meanwhile I’d guess that possibly another 200 have filtered into the Collection since we started this project, and Roger himself had an unknown number of other artefacts;  NONE of these are yet catalogued.)

I have at last been able to start going through the heaps of miscellaneous documents (as opposed to objects) which pack out Roger’s old office. I’m pleased to say that I tracked down another six “missing” artefacts today, and photographed many others for the database.

The piles are very miscellaneous: an old catalogue, a pamphlet from a local nature reserve, computer printouts, handbooks, technical papers, hand-written jottings about power-demands, an obituary, hardware specifications, a shopping list … all in the same pile (his office is extremely small: heaps are the natural storage method).

The heap I was going through today contained what I can confidently proclaim is the oldest document in our collection: an architect’s drawing of No.1 Kensington Terrace, dated 1951. This building (recently converted to — guess what! — student accommodation) was where the Computing Laboratory was first located, in the early 50s: possibly this drawing was used as a basis for planning how space was to be used. We have no idea who gave it to Roger, or when, and — like many, many of the documents in his office — it has not been catalogued. There were other interesting documents in that particular part of the pile: I include them here for your amusement — a relief from bits of computing hardware 🙂

“No. 1 Kensington Terrace”. In the small inset you can see how the Great North Road went past Sydenham Terrace (demolished for the Central Motorway).

“Furniture required for University Computing Laboratory”.

You moan about the FANGs monitoring your activities? In those far-off days (1958, here), you had to account for every phone call that was made, and pay for if it was personal. ALL of this was typed out; on a piece of paper, by one of the office staff.   How busy, and yet how relaxed and unhurried life was then! Now you’ve got your own phone!  And look at the life you lead! 😀

… but only 12 years later, the office staff had the use of custom-made logging pads like this: progress. See next.

A typical page from 1971. I see someone (EB) called the Brazilian Embassy; that was Ella Barrett, the much-respected (feared?) Departmental Administrator. Elizabeth Barraclough is always EDB .. and I see that she called Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre (who had use of our IBM 360/67 — a condition of our getting it).
Another thrilling aspect of this artefact (I am not boring you, I am sure) is that on February 17 1971, the UK changed from £sd to decimal, and this book soon changes its notation (and its adding up – try it yourself on this page) to that system.



Please welcome our new Chair!

After approximately a year as chair of the Historic Computing Committee, I have come to the hard decision that I must step down in order to give more time to my other endeavours, not least my family and my PhD. I will continue to be involved in historic computing but in a more diminished capacity.

We are very lucky that Troy Astarte, Research in the history of Computing, has agreed to take on the role of chair going forward. Troy’s academic interest and skills are a fantastic asset for the committee.

There are some exciting developments just around the corner, watch this space!

Two dazzlers for the Collection

Today I went to the University Library and also to the Medical School to pick up artefacts which (tragically) were otherwise destined for the WEEE Collection.

A true pioneer

First, our valued colleague in NUIT, Paul Kobasa, had lined up three “video magnifiers” for us to pick up from the Library. For the first time in my career as a Museum Volunteer, I had to refuse an item! We really are running out of space, and so we put the two best examples in my car, and shamefacedly turned away from the third. They are not computers, BUT: they are valuable examples of old educational technology, which will never be seen again.These were used in the Library to assist visually disabled readers, and date from the mid-80s.

Paul put a hard disk under the camera,but it was usually used for books (I believe).

The other item that Paul had for us is an OSBORNE 1 PORTABLE COMPUTER! This was the very first (1981) “portable” (c.11Kg) computer. It’s a really valuable (to us) artefact, and what’s more it has come with a large number of disks, manuals, and even the order papers and invoice!

Weighs 11 kilos, hence the retrospective name for such computers as “luggables”, not “portables”, much less “laptops”.

That screen is at least 4″! The owner of this machine bought a 20Mb hard disk at the same time: it cost 3.5 times more than the Osborne (£2500 against £695, in the early 80s).

Tiger, tiger …

Secondly today, I went to see another valued NUIT colleague, Steve Bradwel, in Digital Media Services. He had said he had a superannuated Apple Mac G5 that we could have if we wanted it. “Oh yes”, had been my reply at the time of the call .. not knowing what it actually is (even though I’m an inveterate Apple user).
I didn’t reallise what was waiting for me. Such is its sleek, flawless beauty, combined with evident immense power … it was like taking a walk to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden and finding a Bengal tiger lying there, calmly regarding you. Or something. You have to see this thing in its solid, aluminium flesh, to feel its beauty. [Of course, these days it’s just a weak, old pussycat, even though it’s kept its looks.]

It’s a complete video editing system …

… see?

The computer itself weighs over 20Kg. (One of McAlpine’s lads offered to carry it for me … I don’t know why.)

WOW! Apple at the top of their game.

There’s a transparent cover in the previous photo – it’s off in this one. This system is about 15 years old, but it’s like new.

The inside of the side. “And this is how you …” errr.. add memory? Both of today’s donors feel that the two systems could be made to work again. If anyone ever wanted to make them do so!

Collections and calculators

I’m acutely aware that the Blog is very biased towards Claremont Tower, and the Collection’s Repository which is held there. Never mind! Even I (i.e. John Law) have not blogged recently, and so here’s a little picture to liven up your day.

11 uncatalogued items from the “Calculator sub-collection– see end of this entry.

My activities of “verifying the Catalogue” continue: “verification”, in this definition means just this: making sure that everything that Roger said that he had in his Collection (via his database), is actually there, so that we in the Committee know that we are starting exactly  where Roger left off.

This process of verfification has so far taken two years! Why? Well: we had to build a new repository to start with  – all of Roger’s collection had to be moved from other locations in Claremont Tower; our two companion  departments (School of Computing, and NUIT) moved to different buildings across town, causing immense disruption in terms of rescuing artefacts, and/or moving them; displays were organised in one of those buildings (USB); Claremont Tower itself became a building site last September (requiring special access procedures to be granted and strictly adopted); and above all because there are very few of us at present, and all of us very much part-time.

But the end is in sight! I have now been through a listing of the database several times, comparing the entries with the artefacts. I tell you what: if Artefact Number 1 were in position Number 1 on Rack number 1, and so on up to Artefact Number 429, this job would have been done a lot sooner; but in fact, the artefacts could not have been distributed more randomly. (But let me be clear: randomness is completely inevitable!)

This fragment of paper tape (24 hole) is dated c.1940 – it is thought to be a relic of the Harvard Mk 1. (Note the drawing pin for scale.)

I’m almost at the end of what I see as my final review. Not least because we have a new database/catalogue being written for us! Lindsay Marshall erupted on to the scene about 3 weeks ago, and already has an extremely functional model of a new Catalogue … which will be accessible to all via the web. (Roger had only a single licence for the database he used, which NUIT has renewed each year; this restricted any use of the database to one person — whoever was sitting at the project’s own laptop.)

Lindsay’s new Catalogue is coinciding with my finishing verifying the old database. This was not planned. (“planning”?)

This last week I have been working on a fascinating “sub-collection” of calculating machines, which belongs to a certain Professor of Computing, and has been a “sub-collection” of the larger Collection for many years. It was on display in School of Computing in Claremont Tower, but is currently in storage. Apart from abacuses, slide rules, and “ready-calculators” made for aeroplane navigators, this is the sort of device that makes up the sub-collection:

This picture of the handbook is more informative than if I had merely shown the machine itself 🙂

It behoves us all to remember that it was only a few decades ago that nobody  – from physicists and chemists down to accountants – could write, let alone use, computer programs: they didn’t exist. You had to do mathematics: hard mathematics! The devices in the mechanical calculator sub-collection gave, as it were, rocket-propelled assistance to those mathematicians, and were the technological miracles of their day.

When we have finished verifying the 420-odd catalogued artefacts, we already have about the same number again of new (well – far from “new”) items to catalogue – that will be another story, but thanks to Lindsay’s new catalogue there will be rather more of us doing that job 🙂

More donations!

On Monday 4th I visited Nigel Cross in Jesmond, a friend of Brian’s, who had some interesting artefacts from the early days of “micros”. These were his personal purchases, and must have cost a pretty penny in 1979. Nigel worked for Burroughs in those days, but he was (is) an engineer at heart, and he had bought these to assist in design and other private projects. Nigel says that it can all be made to work: the computer works, but the disk drives will need a little expert fiddling from an electronics buff.
SRM’s gateman very kindly let me into the site in my car to enable me to unload these down into the Sub-Basement: SB6 is now just about FULL.

This is an Apple II “Europlus”: Apple modified their successful II Plus for sales in Europe (also the “J” for Japan) in 1979: they changed the power supplies, and the video system from NSTC to PAL; etc. As you can see, it has two disk drives, and a modest monitor (B/W).

Apple Graphics Tablet. (The stylus is safe inside the Apple II, I am told.)

And here is Nigel’s plotter from that era: this Watanabe WX4671 retailed at $1400, plus $300 for the software, in 1981 … It _would_ still work, said Nigel, but the drive belt has split with age, as you may be able to see.

Progress in the Basement: a nice view towards the Loading Bay: a view, in fact, never ever seen before. (It was lunchtime for the lads: I sneaked into this area when passing.).

A typical visit to Claremont Tower at this time

Quick (ha ha, say some) report on what I did on Friday 18th, to give an idea of how things are going at the Repository in Claremont Tower.

  1. Parked at 1025; went to Black Horse House to borrow the key for the Mezzanine steel door; went to Estates Security, to sign out a radio for emergency use (working alone in the building without a radio is now, rightly, not permitted); signed in at McAlpine’s gatehouse and entered the Tower at 1045.
  2. The main job at present in CT is demolition: they are ripping out all the breezeblock walls in the Basement. This is incredibly tough, dirty work, and creates what seems like a faint mist: it is plaster dust, hanging in the air: all the men wear facemasks. It’s no hazard to those of us going downstairs (it takes about 4 seconds to go from the entrance to the stairs) but the dust does make its way downstairs, and – almost invisibly – covers the floors, and everything else. A plan has been devised to prevent “the mist” going Below Stairs, and hopefully next week it will have been put in place.
  3. Some of my time in the Tower today was taken up with talking with Estates and SRM, who visited to check this problem, and with actually starting to clean the floors on the Mezzanine (I have my own brush (:-)), and I found a vacuum cleaner, but there is no water (in the building)).
  4. For the rest of my time, I moved on to the Catalogue Verification exercise, which at last is going well again. I’m now tackling the filing cabinet in Roger’s Office, which contains all his catalogued documents. These range from a single test punch card, through to a set of programming manuals for the English Electric KDF9 computer (1964 – 1972); there are also many unique artefacts, such as (ex-confidential) internal letters proposing the acquistions of the various mainframes that Newcastle had, machine room plans, network plans, and manufacturers’ manuals about installing those juggernauts. I’m a little over 1/2 way through the filing cabinet.
  5. Then it was time to leave: reverse the process in (1) above.

A routine has now been established, in this new year, and we are picking up speed again.

The Grey Mist .. having fallen to the floor.