Bletchley museum treasures vintage tech

Bletchley museum treasures vintage tech

Summary: ZDNet UK took advantage of a recent visit to Bletchley Park to uncover some of the thousands of items of IT heritage that the National Museum of Computing has in store

TOPICS: After Hours

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  • BT Merlin Tonto

    The Tonto was a rebadged ICL OPD — One Per Desk — an unusual project that saw UK mainframe company ICL take the internals of a Sinclair QL and rebuild them in a desktop computer that included telephony and a 1200/75bps modem. The idea was that this would be a universal office PC, with built-in Psion XChange software — word processor, database, drawing and spreadsheet functions — and microdrive data storage.

    The end result was surprisingly usable and on paper had a very good chance of establishing itself as a useful system. However, poor marketing and general bafflement saw it relegated to history's footnotes. Perhaps its most endearing feature was a voice synthesiser designed for answering machine messages; it had a vocabulary of a couple of hundred words with an office theme, but it was possible to make it say mildly racy things — "I am having my secretary under the table. Please call back".  

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

  • Bubble memory

    Bubble memory
    For a couple of years in the mid-1970s, bubble memory seemed to be the way ahead. It works by shuffling tiny magnetic domains around a sheet of orthoferrite — an iron/rare earth/oxygen compound — by putting current through the sheet. It was denser than other memory systems, very robust, reasonably low-power and cost-effective. The bubble memory shown here is Intel's 7110, a 1Mb device, that saw use in a few laptops and embedded systems in the early 1980s. The unit here was made in 1984, towards the end of the technology's relevance.

    Ordinary solid-state memory developed faster than bubble memory and soon saw it off; it was always much faster, but soon became denser, cheaper and lower-power. 

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

  • Ferranti Pegasus Delay Line Memory

    Ferranti Pegasus Delay Line Memory
    Hailing from around 1957 and using three valves, this unit from the British designed and built Ferranti Pegasus computer stores the equivalent of five bytes of data in a long nickel delay line that's coiled up below the paxolin panel seen here. The Pegasus actually used 40-bit words as its basic unit of data, one of which could be stored here. The line worked through data being fed in at one end by the equivalent of a speaker, and taken out again on the other end after it had spent some time travelling along the delay line as sound waves.

    The designer of the delay line, John Fairclough, was a junior engineer at the time: he finished his career as Sir John Fairclough, chief scientific adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

Topic: After Hours

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Always pleased to see news about Bletchley. I was going to visit (again) this holiday period but the weather was too good!