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November 13, 2014

UK supercomputer celebrates 50th birthday

Atlas 1, built in 1964, was one of the world's first supercomputers.

By Ben Sullivan

UK computing is today celebrating the fiftieth birthday of the Atlas 1, which was the biggest supercomputer in the world in 1964.

When built it was the size of a large detached house, and had the same computing power as a mobile phone.

The Atlas 1 computer was the largest of three world-leading computers built in the UK. It cost around £3m – equivalent to about £80m in today’s money – and was so large that the Atlas Computer Laboratory, as it was known then, was built to fit the computer.

Housed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire, the facility which created Atlas 1 also helped produce the world’s first computer animated films and contributed to the 3D wire-frame model shown in the landing sequence in the film Alien.

Dr Andrew Taylor, Executive Director, STFC National Laboratories, said: "Since those early days, computing at RAL has gone from strength to strength, and the Atlas Centre is now home to Tier One – where data from the Large Hadron Collider is stored in the UK, as well as a range of other facilities such those which process data from weather satellites. Fifty years on, the technology is so far advanced that a mobile phone is more powerful and far cheaper than the Atlas computer."

The doors to RAL will be opened this week to celebrate the anniversary. Dr Taylor said: "We are particularly excited that, in its 50th anniversary year, we are able to display the console from the original Atlas computer, together with memorabilia of the time."

Though the Atlas computing operation has gone from strength to strength, the Atlas 1 itself closed in March 1973 and was replaced by an ICT1906A. In the eight years of operation it had run for 44,500 hours with a 97% up time. 836,000 jobs were run, 300 million cards read, 4000 million characters from paper tape read, 800 million lines of line-printer output generated and 17 million cards punched.

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