What Weighs Five Tons and Lives In A Shed?

Flossie is the answer.  Or, more accurately, a 25 foot square ICT 1301 mainframe computer which dates from 1962.  This would have meant nothing to me a few days ago and I doubt few other people would ever have heard of it before either.  Apparently it is one of the Goliaths of computer history and now, after ten years worth of restoration, the only working example of it’s kind in the world.

I can quite understand that getting excited over an obscure piece of computer history can be a little difficult for some people – this is probably due to the relatively short timeline involved.  If we take Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War as a start of modern computing (one of many possible start points!), then a computer from 1962 is really quite an early example.  It is one of the first steps that would eventually lead to the small personal, multi-use machines that we now take for granted.

It’s original asking price was £250,000 (or £4.2 million in today’s money) and was originally used to print GCE pass slips for the London University, after that it processed club membership lists and also featured as a prop in Dr Who and The Man With The Golden Gun.  How it found it’s way to a farm shed in Kent is anybody’s guess!  With Daphnie Oram’s Oramics machine being re-discovered in a barn in Kent, the county seems to be a bit of a graveyard of computing history.

In terms of data storage and processing power Flossie at first glance seems a little pathetic in today’s terms but was at the time quite powerful.  It has 2kb of memory accessed at 1mhz, 27 reels of magnetic tape and 100,000 punch cards.  Essentially a digital watch has more processing power and all the data could easily be accommodated on a third of a compact disc.

It is quite stunning how the digital revolution miniaturized computing – the 4,000 logic boards and 16,000 transistors that allow Flossie to do it’s job can now be replaced by two 10mm square silicon chips.

Rod Thomas and Roger Holmes have spent the past decade bringing Flossie back to working order and believe that it is an important part of computing history, a history which if not maintained now will be impossible to recover in the future.  Being one of the earliest British-made working mainframe computers, they hope that this rare machine will be saved for posterity and displayed at the Science Museum in London (which already has a fascinating array of redundant machines).  To have this machine working and it’s programming understood adds to our knowledge of the exponential development in electronics and design which led to the now ubiquitous home computer.

The hope of rehousing this machine does have a sense of urgency about it – the farm where the computer is stored is being sold, so a new home is urgently required.  So, if you have a spare shed and are into computing history you might like to get in touch with Rod and Roger, I’m sure they’d be relieved to hear from you…


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