Students reunited with World’s oldest computer

Students who used the world’s oldest computer during their time at the University of Wolverhampton have been to see it at its new home.


Members of the group with the WITCH

Members of the group with the WITCH

In 1957, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College won a competition to house the Harwell Dekatron computer, and renamed it the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell).

It was used by the College, now the University, in computer education until 1973.

Former students who used the WITCH during their time at Wolverhampton came forward after an appeal by the University to trace users and the group joined current staff and students on a special visit to its new home in The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

After leaving Wolverhampton, the WITCH went on display at the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry.

When that museum closed it was put into storage until it was re-discovered in 2008 by staff at the National Museum of Computing, who recovered it and restored it to full working order over three years and rebooted it last November.

The tour group included Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoff Layer and Dean of the School of Technology Ndy Ekere, current staff and students.

They were joined by former students from the Technical College including Peter Burden, who used it as a schoolboy and featured in a famous picture of the WITCH in action.

He said: “It was an extraordinary privilege to be allowed to program a computer for a day a week. It was an equally extraordinary privilege to see the same machine brought back to active service last year and to meet some of the original designers.”

Suzanne Flynn travelled from Scotland to take part in the visit. She used the WITCH when she attended night school classes at the college in around 1964. She said: “When I found out about the trip I knew I had to come to see it in action. It brings back so many memories and was fascinating to see it brought back into use.”

Mary Garvey, Lecturer in the University’s School of Technology and Chair of the Wolverhampton branch of the British Computer Society, also attended.

She said: “I was just so impressed at the dedication of the staff at the museum at bringing this together and getting the machine up and working again.

“Seeing the machine brings home how much progress we have made in a relatively short period of time. The small black-boxes that are today’s servers are unlikely to produce the same awe and interest that the WITCH inspires.”