About Jonathan

Senior Software Engineer at Red Hat. Formerly head of Support (and presently Guest) for the School of Computing Science. See my profile.

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!

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!

How should we communicate?

We are a volunteer-driven project, and volunteer-driven projects live or die by their community. Thankfully, there’s a lot of interest in this project and we are frequently contacted by people who want to get involved.

At the moment, our main method of communication is e-mail via mailing list. This works for the current volunteers, but I’m worried it isn’t attractive or welcoming for newcomers.

It’s high-volume mailing list, and managing high volume  lists is a bit of a lost art. I’ve just taken a look at my “cs-history” mail folder, which goes back to 2015. I have 2,577 messages, totalling 462M of storage. So whenever I recommend to people that they subscribe to the mailing list, I also strongly suggest setting up mail filters to keep the list out of people’s inboxes.

So I’m wondering: should we be doing something else? Are you interested in taking part, but put off by the mailing list? Should we tweak its settings: perhaps open up the archives so non-subscribers can read them? Do you have a suggestion for something else we should try? Please either email (heh) me suggestions or leave a comment on this blog post.

4th new cabinet

New Cabinet #4

In the last few weeks we received our fourth (and in the near future at least, final) new display cabinet. This was originally purchased for our Great Exhibition of the North contribution, but due to delivery lead times we ended up repurposing new cabinets #2 and #3 for that. We are now in an interim phase before cabinets #2 and #3 are adjusted for their intended purpose—our forthcoming IBM 360 mainframe exhibition—and (a subset of) the microcomputers are moved to Cabinet #4. During this interim phase we have extended the microcomputers exhibit into #4 (as pictured) whilst we work out the details of a particular theme, which (if it pans out) I hope to announce here very soon.

The Great Exhibition of the North is officially over in a week’s time on September 9th. Now is the time to make plans to see anything you have missed (that’s what I’m doing!)

The IBM Mainframe and interim exhibit ideas were first mentioned in this earlier post.

This week in Historic Computing

Here’s a round-up of historic computing activities from the last week.

The Great Exhibition of the North

Our Great Exhibition of the North exhibit received some press write-ups. In addition to the University Press Office piece mentioned a few posts ago, syndicated pieces appeared on the School of Computing and Newcastle Helix websites, and an item has been in circulation on the campus-wide message displays. It was also picked up by local paper The Chronicle.

On the back of this publicity, we have received several enquiries from folks about the existing items or the eras in which they were operational, as well as offers to loan or donate additional items. We are trying to follow up all enquiries as quickly as we can. Thank you for your interest!

We’ve enriched the exhibit with a custom-printed banner, providing some further information on the context of the artefacts, as well as a promotional A-frame outside the building to attract audiences.

Mainframe exhibition

Our next major permanent exhibit will be centred around artefacts from the IBM 360/67 mainframe computer that was installed in Newcastle in 1967. At the time this was the largest IBM computer in any british University and Europe’s first time-sharing computer.

Amongst the artefacts that will form part of this exhibit are the a 3D printed scale model of Claremont Tower Sub Basement 12 (SB12), the room within which the IBM 360/67 was situated. This model is being produced by two very talented volunteers in conjunction with researchers from OpenLab. From the machine itself we have the Dynamic Address Translation (Associative Memory) engineer’s control panel and the Operator’s console, the latter of which we are intending to “bring to life” as our first interactive exhibit component. We are very keen to provide interactive elements wherever it is possible and sensible in the context of the exhibit.

We have been planning to organise an opening event for the unveiling of this exhibit once it is ready and some discussion about the best time for that took place over the last week. We have settled on “reading week” in the next academic term, which will be at some point in mid November. More on this, of course, as we plan it.

A major work item for us before this can take place is organising the careful moving of these artefacts from their present location to the Urban Sciences Building.

short-term exhibit

Our fourth new display case arrived Today. This was originally designed for the microcomputers forming part of the GEN exhibit but we ended up shuffling things around in order to open that exhibit as early as possible. With our IBM exhibit unveiling now set for mid-November, the opportunity has come up to put together a short-term “bridging” exhibition from the end of GEN until then. The School is very keen for us to produce something which is as interactive as possible, and has as much relevance to the incoming undergraduates as possible. We have been working feverishly to engage with this brief and hope to unveil an exciting plan in due course!

Bits and Pieces

Of note this week was the acquisition of some artefacts relating to the BBC Domesday Project of 1986. We will write more about that in a subsequent blog post.

We’ve continued to explore options for upgrading our main catalogue system; we’ve received several enquiries about loans or donations of equipment for our exhibits which we are steadily replying to; several of the team have put effort into keeping in touch with friends, family and acquaintances of the group to update them on goings on.

Finally we are discussing issues of access for the current location of the majority of our stored artefacts, as the NUIT (Computing Service) personnel are moving to a new building, and the vacated location is undergoing significant refurbishment. This will make access difficult for us, although it should pose no risk to the items themselves.

Seminar, and Demonstration of a Steam-Powered Difference Engine

This afternoon at 2pm in the Urban Sciences Building, the School of Computing are hosting Professors Adrian Johnstone and Elizabeth Scott, of Royal Holloway, University of London, who will be delivering a seminar entitled “Babbage and the abstraction of mechanism”, followed by a live demonstration of their steam-powered difference engine!

This has to be seen to be believed. The seminar and demo will be in the 1.006 Lecture Theatre and is open to anyone. We hope to see as many people as possible!


Charles Babbage has been called the ‘great-uncle’ of modern computing, a claim that rests simultaneously on his demonstrable understanding of most of the architectural principles underlying the modern computer, and the almost universal ignorance of Babbage’s work before 1970. There has since been an explosion of interest both in Babbage’s devices and the impact they might have had in some parallel history, and in Babbage himself as a man of great originality who had essentially no influence at all on subsequent technological development.

In all this, one fundamental question has been largely ignored: how is it that one individual working alone could have synthesised a workable computer design over a short period, designing an object whose complexity of behaviour so far exceeded that of contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over one hundred years?

The key, as is well understood in modern engineering contexts, is to abstract away from the full complexity of a concrete system. The complexity barrier was faced by the electronics industry in the 1970s and 1980s, and triggered a switch from visual descriptions of large scale digital electronic devices to text-based Hardware Description Languages similar in style to that of a software programming language.

Babbage too faced an overwhelming complexity barrier, and his response was indeed to design a system of hardware abstractions which he called his Notation. The ideas allowed him to reason in the abstract about chains of cause and effect in his mechanisms, and he believed the Notation to be his crowning achievement.

His ideas were not taken up: one near contemporary rejected it because there could be many concrete machines that had the same notational description (which to modern eyes of course, is precisely the point of abstraction).

In this talk I will use the 1980s Inmos Fat Freddy system to draw parallels between early electronic HDL’s and Babbage’s notation; display some strengths and weaknesses of Babbage’s approach; and speculate on underlying cause of the 150 year gap between Babbage’s notation and the emergence of HDL based engineering design as a standard technique.


Elizabeth Scott is Professor Computer Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Director of the Software Engineering Language Centre; she also has overall responsibility for teaching and learning in the department.

Scott completed her D.Phil under the supervision of Graham Higman, then Waynefleet Professor of Pure Mathematics at Oxford with whom she also co-authored the LMS Monograph Existentially Closed Groups. She first came to Royal Holloway in 1991, joining Ursula Martin’s Group and was appointed Professor of Computer Science in 2009.

Her research concerns generalised parsing – that is efficient and completely general methods for processing computer programming languages and indeed natural languages. She is the acknowledged world expert on the design of these classes of algorithms.

Adrian Johnstone is Professor of Computing. He was principal investigator on the Royal Holloway component of the EPSRC PLaNCompS project which aimed to develop modular extensible formal semantics for programming languages. He is also principal investigator for the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Notions and Notations: Babbage’s language of thought’ on which this talk is based.

Exhibition bytes into the history of computers

Professor Brian Randell and Jon Dowland

The University Press Office have published an article about our display for the Great Exhibition of the North!

Sixty years on from the creation of the first computing lab at Newcastle University, a special exhibition will highlight some of the ground-breaking IT developments that have since taken place.

You can read the full thing here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/latest/2018/08/historyofcomputing/

The IBM PC joins our Exhibition

We’ve completed the final major improvement we planned to make to our display for the Great Exhibition of the North: the insertion of a custom-made shelf into the tallest cabinet. This has given us the room required to exhibit one further artefact: An example of the first generation of IBM Personal Computer.

Enormous thanks to Clive Gerrard, who designed, assembled and installed the shelf, with a little help from the committee volunteers and the Urban Science Building’s Maker Space for final alterations!

The remaining work we plan for this exhibition is the addition of more photos, videos, contextual artefacts and further explanatory text and links, rather than computers themselves.

As before, we will keep you updated here with all of our planned changes.

Another display cabinet

Mainframe artefacts cabinet

As promised, we have expanded and refined our offering for the Great Exhibition of the North. In particular, we have added a third cabinet containing several artefacts from the very earliest computer mainframes at Newcastle University, including the Ferranti Pegasus (1957), KDF 9 (1964) and IBM 360/67 (1967).

Compared to the microcomputers adjacent, the mainframe computers were enormous: each mainframe  in turn occupied half of Claremont Tower’s vast (660 sqm) sub-basement machine room (the mainframes ‘overlapped’ in time, so that as one came in, the other was being prepared for decommissioning). See Roger’s introductory page at http://moca.ncl.ac.uk/ 

As well as the new cabinet we have made a number of refinements and improvements to the signage, thanks in particular to the hard work of volunteer Nick Tones.

We aren’t quite finished: There’s more to come, watch this space!