Thursday, October 03, 2013

BPN 1663: Dutch uni to build a computer, again (1)

Dutch scientists, led by the Technical University Delft, will start working on a supercomputer. The computer will be ready in fifteen years. It is a so-called quantum computer and it is a project of QuTech, an institute for innovation, funded for nine million a year, funded by the State, the TU Delft , the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research and business.

After more than 60 years a Dutch uni will start to build a computer in the Netherlands again. Between 1950 and 1980 computers were built at universities and by commercial companies in the Netherlands. Some of those computers are still in heritage collections, but not many were kept . In 2010 SCEN, the Computer Heritage Foundation Netherlands, published the National Register of Historic Computers (sorry, in Dutch).

University as a computer builder
Since 1952 scientists did not only study computers and computer principles, but they also began to develop them themselves. Universities and scientific institutions became computer builders.

The first computer in the Netherlands was ARRA I ( Automatic Relay Calculator Amsterdam ). It was built by the Mathematical Centre, part of the University of Amsterdam, these days known as CWI. It was a machine working with relays, switches operated by electromagnets. In practice, the machine was not exactly usable. At the presentation on June 21, 1952 in the presence of the Mayor of Amsterdam d' Ailly and the Minister for Education, Arts and Sciences F.J.Th. Rutten a demonstration of the device was planned generating a table of random numbers. This worked, but then the device gave up. The ARRA II, however, built in 1954 was a success. The computer contained radio tubes and transistors and a kernel memory . With this computer calculations were successfully carried out for the Fokker aircraft factory. The ARRA I nor the ARRA II have been preserved.

The year 1954 also marked the start of a second generation computer, ARMAC by the Mathematical Centre; in 1956 the computer was ready. New for this machine was that the software perspective taken by the developers. Starting point was the software design after which the hardware was selected. This computer made ​​use of transistors, a drum memory and a kernel memory. The ARMAC charged include for the Delta Works, the dike construction to guard the Netherlands from the sea. The computer was a success and seemed to have commercial potential. The ARMAC has not been preserved.

Another hotspot for computer building was the Technical University Delft. Computers were researched here and built. In 1952 Willem van der Poel developed the ARCO (nicknamed Testudo). In the following year he worked on the development of the PETRA, the first computer in the Netherlands with radio tubes instead of relays. In 1957 Van der Poel built the first ZEBRA , which worked on one half with radio tubes and the other half with transistors. The ZEBRA was successful. In fact it was fully transistorised and taken into production in Britain by Stantec. The ARCO has been preserved in the collections of the TU Delft; the PETRA , however, has not been preserved. The Stantec ZEBRA can also still be found in the collections of the TU Delft

Scientific institutions
Two research centers got involved in the building of computers: TNO and Philips Research Laboratory.
In 1955 the Dutch TNO, a scientific and technical consultancy for the government and business built also a computer, the VT , a technically advanced analogue computer. The aircraft builder Fokker used the computer to calculate aircraft movements and air flow and performed simulations with the computer. The VTH is considered the first highly advanced technical-scientific computer in the Netherlands. No copies of the VTH were built; luckily the VTH is part of the collections of the TU Delft.

In the fifties the electronics company Philips was not engaged in the construction of commercial computers. However, the Philips Research Laboratory (Natlab) built the computer PETER, which became operational in 1958. This one was followed by the PASCAL (Philips Awful Speedy CALculator), which was put into use in 1960 and proved to be much faster and more reliable than its predecessor. But a commercial version of the computer was a problem for Philips, because the company was producing computer components for IBM . And because this regular assignment brought in good money, Philips did not want to compete with IBM, but that changed after 1960.

By the end of the fifties the universities, particularly the University of Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology , were finished with building computers. The Mathematical Centre did not want to get engaged in a commercial adventure with the ARMAC, so the independent company Electrologic was founded in 1956. One year later IBM started marketing mainframes.

It is interesting to observe that a similar situation is arising around the quantum computer . There is no quantum computer yet. A lot of research still has to be done into the quantum doctrine, in the application of nano-materials and devices, and most of all in software. In the fifties it took universities  roughly a decade to develop computers at universities. The development of quantum computers is estimated at 15 years.

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