Computing Power in the UK R & D Sector

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AEA Dominates: 1959

AEA Computing

In the early years of computing in the UK, computing power in the academic and research sector was dominated by the Atomic Energy Authority. Computing power was needed to design reactors for peaceful uses. Fuel rod design, simulation of fuel rod content over the life of a reactor and many other characteristics all required simulations to be carried out. Basic research was carried out the establishment at Harwell and closer to market research done at Risley and Winfrith.

Thermo-nuclear fusion was seen as a potential source of clean energy and the work started at Harwell with Zeta was moving to a new Laboratory at Culham with a single focus.

In 1959, the UK was a nuclear power with the atom bomb and the ability to develop a hydrogen bomb. This work was carried out at the Weapons Laboratory at Aldermaston and was the main focal point for computing power in the UK. Aldermaston, a war time airfield, was born in 1950 and the decision was taken to make a hydrogen bomb in 1954. Christmas Island tests in 1957 were unimpressive due to a lack of computing power which was limiting the designers' ability to predict the performance of the device. This resulted in an IBM 704 being installed in 1957. In 1958, a collaborative agreement was reached with the USA that gave the UK access to the Nevada Test Site.

The pecking order in terms of installed power was:

  1. Aldermaston
  2. Risley
  3. Harwell
  4. Winfrith
  5. Culham

As work on thermo-nuclear fusion expanded, the order of the last two was likley to change.

University Computing

Both Manchester and Cambridge Universities had been involved in computer developments for many years and a service based on a Ferranti Mercury existed at Manchester and one based on EDSAC at Cambridge. Both London and Oxford Universities also had Mercury computers. Other smaller computers existed within the academic community but none of significant power.

Using the large Atlas eventually to be installed at Chilton as having a full 4-shift working capacity of 1, the graph below shows the relative power available to organisations in early 1959.

1959 0.01 0.02 0.03 0.04 0.05 0.06 0.07 0.08 0.09 0.10 Daresbury Rutherford Rest AEA Aldermaston Atlas Laboratory Universities Manchester London Edinburgh
Computing: 1959

Aldermaston needed an increase in computing power immediately and were in the process of installing an IBM 709 and longer term (1962) were aiming to install an IBM 7030 (Stretch). Harwell also saw a need for a major increase in computing power. Some of this could be achieved by getting time on the Risley and Aldermaston machines but an Atlas based at Harwell would be a better solution. Both Cambridge and London Universities also saw a need for a major increase in computer power.