Manchester ATLAS (1962)


[The ATLAS control desk and programming details as operators left them.] [The engineer's control console] [ATLAS] [ATLAS] [Read-only memory from the ATLAS computer, 1962. Lancashire weavers made the wiring lattice.] [ATLAS]

Manchester, England; photos taken in 2002.

Corrections and further information

The information above is taken from the cards that were on the display in 2002. I received the following information from Peter Duncanson on alt.usage.english in November 2012.

The second control desk shown was not for the Atlas computer but for the later MU5 which was designed as a successor to Atlas.

The sign reading "Read-only memory from the ATLAS computer, 1962. Lancashire weavers made the wiring lattice" refers to a rack that is not shown.

The Fixed Store, as it was known, consisted of a woven lattice (insulated wires) with ferrite rods and copper rods inserted to represent ones and zeroes. The rods were in groups in plastic carriers which were on one side of the lattice. On the opposite side of the lattice was a layer of Plasticine to hold the rods.

The image at the bottom right of the Atlas page shows the rear of a rack of electronics. Front views of similar racks are shown here (I recognise the two men in that picture but can't put names to them.) Each rack has a stack of 10-ish horizontal "boxes" with printed circuit boards plugged into vertical sockets on a backplane.

I wrote a program to design the routing of the wiring on the backplane of each box. For obvious reasons I named the program "Birdsnest".

Apart from the fixed store lattice having been "woven by Lancashire weavers" there was a further, indirect, textile connection.

One of the University staff who designed the Atlas Control Unit was from China. I was told that he, Yao Chen (E.C.Y. Chen), had come to England to study Textile Technology at, I think, Huddersfield Tech. His father owned and ran a textile factor in China (near Shanghai(?)) and Yao was expecting to work in the business. However, the business was taken over by the communist government. Yao remained in England and transferred from textile technology to electrical engineering at Manchester University and was one of the designers of the central control unit of Atlas.

Another man who was a software expert on the Atlas project at the university was invited by a company that published knitting patterns to computerise the production of knitting patterns. He declined the offer but was chuckling about it for days afterwards.

Many of the people who produced the Supervisor (operating system) and applications software were based in London. They travelled to Manchester for a few days a week to test their programs and then returned to London to fix the bugs they had found. That meant that those of us permanently in Manchester didn't really get to know them as they didn't hang around to socialise. There were one or two with distinctive names that stuck in the memory. One of the applications designers whose surname became very well known some years later was Conway Berners-Lee, the father of Tim B-L.