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Your computer is loading - Early device delivered to City Hall in 1957

PUBLISHED: 12:22 19 January 2019

An early computer being delivered to City Hall in 1957. Photo: Archant library

An early computer being delivered to City Hall in 1957. Photo: Archant library

Archant

It is a photograph which highlights how far computers have come since their room-filling days.

Taken in February 1957, the well-known image shows a computer, larger than an upright piano, being unloaded into City Hall.

But perhaps less well-known is that it was the first municipal computer in Britain, an innovation made by the city’s treasurer of the time, Mr A J Barnard.

It was transported from its London manufacturer by a Suffolk carrier due to its weight of between three and six tons.

The computer was dubbed an Elliott 405 electronic data processing system and would have cost between £50,000 and £125,000, or £1,180,000 to £2,960,000 in today’s money. Even with the investment in tape and replacements, hand punchers, technicians and the computer itself, the City Council expected to save a fifth of the total cost on staff alone.

The computer relied upon, without exaggeration, miles of magnetic film. At any time, two reels of 1,000 feet each would be in the machine, storing 300,000 ‘words’ of data, as the New Scientist reported at the time.

Those 300,000 ‘words’ meant 9,000 properties and data about their rates and accounts.

When the machine was delivered, the reels needed to be created using hand-punched reels of paper tape. This took so long that by the time the initial information was prepared it needed to be changed, since all shop properties in the city had their rates re-evaluated during the process.

Each week new amendments would be fed to the machine on paper tape, allowing it to make changes to calculate new rates. After six months the entirety of its memory would be produced for accounting, and written once again to a new reel of magnetic tape.

The Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer. Picture: Raspberry Pi Foundation/WikimediaThe Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer. Picture: Raspberry Pi Foundation/Wikimedia

These reels were removed and stored in two sets, one of those where bills were paid by the occupier and those where they were not.

It is telling of the changes in housing that the occupier set contained seven rolls, whereas the non-occupier set contained only two.

Each reel stored the modern equivalent of 1.2 MB. This is less than an average photograph today.

In comparison, the Raspberry Pi Zero, is a low-cost computer released in November 2015. It has 32,000 times processing storage of the 1957 computer, can be bought for less than £5 and would fit twice across the letter ‘I’ on the packaging of the Elliott 405.

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