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Computer Pioneer D**k Barnes Dies

A pioneer behind the oldest working computer, D**k Barnes, has died. He was one of the co-designers of the world’s oldest digital computer.


Barnes helped to create the Harwell Dekatron. It was first used in 1951 by Britain’s nuclear research organisation. He also helped in the restoration of the machine in 2012. Ted Cooke-Yarborough, Gurney Thomas and Barnes began work on the 2.5-tonne machine in 1949.


The Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom first used the machine. The establishment used it in solving equations used for the design of the world’s first commercial nuclear reactor.


Then two technical colleges acquired the computer in 1957. There, they used it to teach computing for 16 years. It bagged the nickname, “Witch” meaning Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell.


The Dekatrons were gas-filled tubes used as counting devices in the early years of digital computers. They were essential in storing numbers for calculations in a computer’s memory.


Harewell Dekatron
The Harewell Dekatron


In November 2012, the computer was switched back on after a three-year restoration project. It turned out to be a slow but functioning computer. Sometimes, it took up to 10 seconds to multiply two numbers. However, Barnes and his co-designers wanted a machine that was useful and could run continuously. It did not matter that it was not fast because it could calculate continuously for up to 80 years.


One of the members of the team that worked on the restoration said Barnes had a keen interest in the project. Barnes was responsible for its complex relay logic.


Barnes died at the age of 98.

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