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50 years of academic computing

It’s 50 years since a huge government investment kick started academic computing, with machines installed at Leeds, Southampton, Newcastle, Oxford and London and Glasgow.
According to Professor Roger Boyle, head of computing at University of Leeds, the investment was a huge risk. “They had no way of knowing if this was a good idea or not.”

The Leeds machine – called Lucifer, short for Leeds University Computer Installation Ferranti – cost £50,000. It was installed in a disused Methodist chapel on the edge of campus, where a new concrete floor was laid to take its weight and minimise vibration.
“There were no transistors – it was all valves and glowing lights – and came with armies of personnel, who had to carry out a daily maintenance programme,” said Prof Boyle. Programming was done by paper tape. “They would feed the tape into the machine, wait while it thought about it, often for hours – and then the answer would be spat out on more paper tape.”
Although it had a tiny memory and slow processing speed, Lucifer enabled Leeds researchers to make complex calculations far more quickly than would have been otherwise possible. Prof Boyle noted: “This made it a really valuable tool for physicists and mathematicians. Our machine was also used by chemists, who needed its power for their work in crystallography.”
Emeritus Professor Tony Wren used Lucifer to produce the software which led to the world’s first computerised train schedule in 1963. The software was first used by British Rail to allocate locomotives to freight trains on the North London Line, allowing it to use three fewer locomotives.
By 1960, Lucifer was given a major upgrade and four years later it was replaced.

Graham Pitcher

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