Archive image showing The Science Research Council installion of one of the pioneering Atlas computers at its Chilton Computer Laboratory in 1964.

Atlas computer anniversary sees celebratory week

Scientists and engineers who worked on the UK’s pioneering Atlas computer have gathered this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its inauguration on 7 December 1962.

Developed at the University of Manchester between 1956 and 1963, the Atlas was at the time of its inauguration (by Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir John Cockcroft) the world’s most powerful computing device. The aim of the Atlas was to build a computer that could operate at processing speeds approaching one microsecond per instruction, about one million instructions per second.

This week’s celebrations will include demonstrations of the 1948 Manchester Baby (the world’s first stored-program computer, now housed at the Museum of Science and Industry), an exhibition of Atlas artefacts, talks by pioneers, and presentations on Computer Science research in 2012.

“The 2012 Atlas event will bring together – probably for the last time – a unique group of industrialists, academics, and end-users,” says computer historian Professor Simon Lavington, who started using Atlas as a research student in 1962. “They contributed to a world-class project which brought a huge increase of computing power to the UK’s scientific community in the 1960s.”

Indeed, it was claimed that when the first Atlas became operational, 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. All were kept very busy.

The Science Research Council, for example, installed an Atlas at its Chilton Computer Laboratory in 1964 (pictured), for use by the UK’s scientific community. Two years later the Laboratory’s director, Jack Howlett, was able to write in his annual Report that 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.”

Sponsors of the Atlas 50 events include IET Communities, the BCS, the Science & Technology Facilities Council, and the University of Manchester.

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