Ray Bird: the HEC1 computer
Ray Bird, filmed at the Birmingham Museum Collection Centre, recalls the early days of the HEC1 computer.
Well the item behind me is the HEC1 computer which was the first electronic computer that was used for commercial purposes, other than the LEO machine which Joe Lyons had developed for – earlier. In the British – in the UK I should say. Dr Booth who was a lecturer at Birkbeck College needed calculating machines, computers, for crystallographic calculations and he was developing this machine in a barn at Fenny Compton, just north of Coventry, and he needed input and output to feed the information in or to print it or record it on punch cards in the output, so he did a deal with British Tabulating Machine Company that he’d swap the design of his early machine, which I’m leaning on, for punch card machinery which he would then have for Birkbeck College for input and output to his computers. So I was sent down there with two other chaps to copy this machine in this [laughs] decrepit barn in Fenny Compton, which copied – I mean on paper, I don’t mean physically, and record the circuits, record the layouts of the boards and then take these drawings back to the British Tabulating Machine Company’s works at Letchworth, into their development laboratories in Icknield Road, Icknield Way, and this is what we produced from those diagrams.
The great difference between a computer and a calculator is that it has a test function that you can use many times all over it. What is a test function? It means that you make the machine look at a particular digit in a register, if it’s a one we will do something there, if it’s a nought we will do something there, quite different. So you can build up a tree of choices using this test function which makes this machine, compared with a calculator – calculator extremely intelligent, compared with the human mind of course it’s not intelligent, but it means that you can make all sorts of choices, is it male or female, or did they go on holiday, all sorts of questions that you want to answer, was he paid last month, is he overdrawn, all these tests would be done by this sort of function, so take it aback [ph], just those things I’ve been mentioned would be built into an account testing programme to decide whether to cash somebody’s cheque or not for instance.
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