This year's prestigious Tony Sale Award for achievement in computer conservation is a shared award between a virtual reconstruction of pioneering 1930s mechanical computer and a restored industry-changing IBM system from 1959.
Tony Sale, who died in 2011, is best-known for leading the rebuild of Colossus and for co-founding The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, where Colossus is now exhibited. The award, named in his honour, is managed by the Computer Conservation Society and sponsored by Google UK.
The 2014 event attracted eight entries from four countries. The team leaders from the winning projects – Professor Raul Rojas for the 'Z1 Architecture and Algorithms' from the Free University of Berlin and Robert Garner for the 'IBM 1401 Demo Lab' by the Computer History Museum in California – received their awards at a special ceremony in London yesterday evening.
The Z1 project is a virtual reconstruction of an early mechanical computer originally built in Germany by engineer and inventor Konrad Zuse between 1936 and 1938. It was designed to enable engineers to more easily perform the repetitive and arduous calculations from what was envisaged as developing into 'a desktop device'. Constructed of some 30,000 aluminium and glass parts, Zuse's proof-of-concept prototype model Z1 was used for demonstration purposes and to attract the funding Zuse needed to develop his prototype further. However, the Z1 was destroyed in an air raid on Berlin in 1943.
Although 40 years later Zuse himself reconstructed the Z1 as a static exhibit at the Berlin Technology Museum, this proved unsuitable to be physically operated. Based on meticulous research over a period of years, Prof Rojas's team at the Free University of Berlin constructed a 3D visual simulation of the Z1's arithmetic unit that's now accessible on the Web. The project also features hundreds of high-resolution photographs of the 1980s reconstruction that enable it to be explored visually from multiple angles via a browser.
The IBM 1401 entry is based around the 10-year reconstruction of a mass-produced mainframe that transitioned IBM from a supplier of high-end accounting machines into a dominant force in the emerging business computer market in the mid-20th century. Announced at the end of the 1950s, the 1401's appeal meant that some 15,000 systems were eventually produced of a machine that IBM initially expected only to lease or sell 1,000 units. The 1401's innovations included a sophisticated chain printer and data storage units that supported both punched card and tape-based media.
The restored 1401 used components from two recovered systems, one of which had been operating in an American family basement and kept running until 1995 and another that was initially found in Germany via eBay. The computers and ancillary systems are on permanent display, demonstrated to museum visitors and school groups two times a week, explained restoration project lead Robert Garner. “Kids love the punch cards,” Garner said. “Even in 2014 the vintage mainframe systems can inspire young technologists.”
Along with getting a 1401's hardware and software back into working order, the project also meant that system consumables such as punch cards, reel-to-reel tapes and sprocketed printer paper and ink ribbons had to be sourced. “You can find a lot of what's needed, but the print ribbons presented a specific challenge,” reported Garner. “We could find old stock, but the ink had dried out, so the team had to find a way to rehydrate it”.
Announcing the winners, head of the judging panel – computer historian Martin Campbell-Kelly – said that the eight 2014 entries “demonstrate how computer conservation is flourishing”. The 16 conservation projects that the Computer Conservation Society is now involved with will help the wider public gain a better understanding of how technological heritage has shaped the ICT that plays such an important part in our lives in 2014.