Monster 1951 machine vs $15 BBC micro:bit: Which computer won and by how much?

TechRepublic | 2/20/2018 | Nick Heath
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One computer is the size of three wardrobes and performed calculations to help build a nuclear reactor, the other is a tiny electronic board designed to teach children to code.

If you had to place bets on which would prove the more powerful machine, your money would probably be on the former.

Computer - Second - Intervening - Years - Technology

However, while the first computer was built in 1951, the second was released in 2016, and in the intervening years technology has advanced so far that the supercomputers of yesteryear pale in comparison to even the simplest of modern machines.

So proved to be the case this weekend, when the 1951 Harwell Witch, the world's oldest working computer, was roundly trounced by the $15 BBC micro:bit in the Grand Digital computer race at The National Museum of Computing in the UK.

BBC - Bit - Witch - Numbers - Fibonacci

The BBC micro:bit didn't just beat the Witch, it crushed it, calculating some 6843 numbers in a Fibonacci sequence in 15 seconds, while the Witch managed just three.

Despite the gulf in performance, the role played by the two machines couldn't be more different. The micro:bit runs on the most basic Arm processor — more commonly found in health wearables — and is designed to allow children to run simple programs, while the Witch handled simultaneous equations for engineers building the world's first atomic reactor for generating electricity, Calder Hall in the UK.

Witch - Speed - Operator - Hand - Calculator

That said, the Witch wasn't necessarily prized for its speed, a practiced operator of a hand calculator would be able to keep up with the Harwell Computer for a time, but it could keep going far longer and more reliably than a human calculator.

"It has to be said, the Witch isn't a fast machine, it isn't the fastest of our contenders," said Delwyn Holroyd, who played a key role in restoring the Witch to working order.

"When it was built, the...
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