Friday, December 7, 2012

Remembering Ferranti Atlas: the UK’s first supercomputer

Last year we celebrated the LEO computer, the world’s first computer to be used for business. Today we’d like to pay tribute to another pioneer in the commercialisation of computing: the UK engineering firm, Ferranti Ltd. Among their achievements was the creation of Atlas, the UK’s first supercomputer, which was switched on 50 years ago today.  



This film was produced by Google for this week’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the Ferranti Atlas. 

In the 1940’s, Ferranti branched out from manufacturing power transformers to developing fuses, valves and other electronics to support the war effort. They were thus well-placed to win the contract to manufacture a commercial version of Manchester University’s groundbreaking “Baby”—the world’s first stored programme computer. The result was the Ferranti Mark 1, which became the first computer to be sold commercially in February 1951.  

Next, Ferranti recruited an inhouse team who designed what became Pegasus, with backing from government-owned NRDC. Launched in 1956, with an upgrade in 1959, the Pegasus series was the most commercially successful of Ferranti’s computers. Overall, 40 Pegasus computers were built, and by the late 1950’s Ferranti’s West Gorton facility was the largest production plant for computers in Europe. A restored 1959 model Pegasus still exists today in the London Science Museum.  

In parallel, Ferranti retained a close relationship with Manchester University. In 1957 they launched an upgraded version of the Mark 1 called Mercury, which was more reliable and better at handling floating point arithmetic. In 1959, they began to collaborate on something entirely new: Atlas, a commercial version of the university’s Muse project, which aimed to build a computer capable of 1 million instructions per second, an almost 100-fold increase compared to Ferranti’s previous models.  

Atlas represented a step change in UK computing design.  Partly this related to hardware, as engineers shifted from using thermionic valves (aka vacuum tubes) to transistors, which were faster and used less power.  Partly it related to software, as designers came up with new operating systems to squeeze out every last drop of performance. But also it related to ambition.  By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s a new breed of high-performance computers were emerging from the US, heralding the start of the “supercomputing” era. Atlas was the UK’s attempt to catch up with these advances and, at least in technological terms, for a brief period it succeeded.  

The first Atlas became operational 50 years ago today, on December 7th 1962, and was for a time the most powerful computer in the world.  It was claimed that when the first Atlas arrived in 1962, it roughly doubled the UK’s scientific computing capability.

Earlier this week, Google was delighted to lend our support to an anniversary gathering of computer historians and those who worked on Atlas to reminisce and celebrate their achievements.  

While sadly Atlas did not find commercial success, and was soon overtaken in speed by other machines, its influence lives on.  Many of the software concepts Atlas pioneered are still in use today—not least virtual memory and multi-tasking, enabling the computer to work on multiple programs at once.  The program controlling this, called Atlas supervisor, has been described as the “most significant breakthrough in the history of operating systems”, with virtual memory the most widely used computer design development of the past 50 years.  

 
Atlas was also the last hurrah for Ferranti’s computing business.  In 1963 the division was sold off and merged into what became ICL, later bought by Fujitsu.  The last Atlas was switched off in 1976 and with it came the end of an era for British computing.

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