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Man vs. Machine: WITCH computer faces off against human

The WITCH computer, the oldest functioning digital computer in existence, has found a new life in the UK's National Museum of Computing, and has now taken part in a calculation race against a human.

Last week, we reported on the WITCH computer, a dekatron powered machine and the oldest digital computer in existence. The WITCH has undergone serious restoration work since 2009 and is now powered back on again at the UK's National Museum of Computing, where it has taken it's place as an exhibit. The WITCH, which was created in 1951, was one of only a dozen computers worldwide at the time, and was meant to calculate algorithms based on input on paper strips. It worked at roughly the same speed as a human being, and because of this, it has taken part in a calculation race with Bart Fossey; a reenactment of one which was done nearly 60 years earlier.

The WITCH, fully restored


Bart Fossey was hired by an insurance company as a summer job while at university, where he utilized a mechanical Facit pocket calculator. When he was later in charge of checking the computational accuracy of the WITCH, he utilized the same mechanical device. He set out to determine if the computer's rounding produced errors in the results. The WITCH is a much more mechanical machine than it's modern day counterparts, and so Fossey could actually hear from the noises it made, that he was working at the same speed as the computer.


Fossey visited the National Museum of Computing for a rematch, and set off to race the computer in front of an audience. Using a Facit requires some practice, and a bit of dexterity, and understandably, Fossey was out of practice. But after a while, the museum reports, he "managed to keep up with the machine for several minutes to great acclaim from the audience."


Bart Fossey's epic race against the machine


Unfortunately, while the WITCH is currently operational, it will only be reliving it's glory days for so long. Eventually, the Museums will run out of Dekatron tubes, the digital component central to the computer's operation, which can store one number between 0 and 9, and at that point, its racing days will be over.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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