Welcome to the Datatron 205 and 220 Blog

This blog is a companion to T J Sawyer's Web Page that outlines the history of the Burroughs Datatron 205 and Paul Kimpel's incredible 205 and 220 emulators. Please visit those sites and return here to post any comments.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Open Thread - 10/30/09

This post is for you!

Click on the COMMENTS word just below this line. Feel free to post anything that you would like to correct, clarify or add to the Datatron website.

You will need a Google ID (If you have a G-mail account, you have one) or Blogger ID to post a comment.

Another Datatron Site - Lamar State College

A number of Datatrons appear to have had "second lives."

W. L. Peavy entered Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont, Texas, and met his first Datatron -- a 205 that was obtained from United Gas Corporation of Shreveport, Louisiana. He describes the machine as follows:
At Lamar, there were three languages available for use:
1) Machine Language (my favorite),
2) ALGOL 58, (I had no idea Knuth wrote it)
3) Shell Assembler (I never saw this actually run).
There was also a mathematical subroutine library (relocatable) on paper tape. (I've no idea where this came from.)

We had two tape drives, a DataFile, a Cardatron unit, and two IBM punched card units. (I don't recall the models of the IBM units) We had no line printer.

We also had a complete set of blueprints for the machine which really came in handy for trouble-shooting.

I can't imagine a more congenial machine on which to begin learning about computing.

Congenial! Yes, that describes the Datatron in a single word. But at Lamar they also had a DataFile.

Photo courtesy of Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota.

I had never run into anyone who actually used one of these devices. I have heard it described as a "Data fail" because of reliability problems. Peavy continues:
As to the DataFile, we loved it.  But we didn't have all that many tapes for it.  I mean, the lanes were populated but the tapes were defective in large part and we didn't have the money to go out and buy more.  At the time, I was working part-time in the Geophysical Laboratory at Sun Oil Company there in Beaumont, Texas and the seismic tape they used was 3" wide.

Occasionally, they'd retire some tape and one of the gentlemen who'd been with the company forever had a home-built rig that he used to split those tapes in to 1/4" widths for audio. He modified it to split some 3/4" tapes out for us and we had a small collection of tapes. But they weren't really precisely cut and so we didn't have good results from them -- but we tried just about anything to avoid spending money.

Our Algol 58 Compiler resided on one DataFile tape and it got used practically to death.
Here's a closer look at the tapes he is describing.

Photo courtesy of Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Executive Profile - Edwin S. McCollister


I have gotten a start on a couple of executive profiles for key managers at ElectroData Corp. First out of the box was Ed McCollister. That is "Edwin S. McCollister" if you are searching the internet.

I have been collecting information about McCollister in a folder ever since I started to build the Datatron website. He seems to be a real character and really got around the industry - IBM, ElectroData, Burroughs, Univac, RCA and back to Burroughs!

Last week, I finally cracked open the ElectroData press release files at the Charles Babbage Institute (I spend every Monday afternoon there. But it would be easy to just move in and only leave for meals. What a collection of files and information!) There in the 1960 P. R. folder was a picture of Ed McCollister. I have been looking for a good shot of him for about a year. I guess Burroughs purged him from their biography files. That got me to work writing the McCollister page on the Datatron site and a couple of days ago I moved it on-line. Enjoy!

I am also collecting items for a Jim Bradburn (James R. Bradburn) page but don't have all I want yet.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Book Review

If you are reading this blog, you undoubtedly have an interest in early computers. I have a large collection of books on the subject but recently came across a great addition to my library. The First Computers, History and Architectures - edited by Raul Rojas and Ulf Hashagen is an outstanding work.

This book resulted from papers presented at the International Conference on the History of Computing in Paderborn, Germany, in August 1998. It is notable for containing first-hand or nearly first-hand accounts of developments in America, England and Germany in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

The first part of the book, unfortunately, could put the reader to sleep and result in even a serious student of the subject never reaching "the good stuff." But once I hit Harry Huskey's paper on page 69, I realized that I was seeing first hand reports with details not previously published. Details on both the Eniac and the IAS computer at Princeton filled a lot of gaps in my knowledge.

The parts of the book dealing with both British and German development shed a lot of light on important developments that are frequently omitted or only superficially covered in many works.

Highly recommended!

Bertha Preserves the Datatron

Shortly after Burroughs acquired ElectroData Corporation in 1956, Burroughs employees Douglas Bolitho and Martin Klein hit on a public relations strategy that will preserve the Datatron name long into the future.

Using well established mathematical rules of music composition, they developed an automated music composition program for the Datatron. Burroughs took one of the resulting compositions, hired popular composer Jack Owens to write lyrics for it and created Push Button Bertha.

(Click to enlarge)
The result was a program and song cited to this day in PhD dissertations, foot-noted in books on electronic music and preserved for posterity.

I realized the significance of this composition when I was contacted in January by Dr. Lutz Neitzert who was preparing a short radio broadcast incorporating the history of "Push Button Bertha."

And did I say "preserved for posterity?" Well, yes!. The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota contains a copy of the Datatron program that was written by Bolitho and Klein. I am currently building a Datatron emulator in Java. (I've had a previously completed version of the emulator running in Visual Basic but want to make it easier to distribute.) I had thought that the ultimate proof of emulation was to run the Algol 58 compiler. I now realize that I will have to add the music composition program to my test bed.

For readers with sharp eyes and a good imagination, there is a barely visible copy of the Push Button Bertha score at this site.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On the Origins of the B-register

Dik Leatherdale, the editor of "Resurrection" the journal of the (British) Computer Conservation Society sent me an e-mail linking to additional details about the development and naming of the B-Register.

On my Datatron Homepage, I refer to Harry Huskey bringing this innovation to Pasadena from Manchester, England. In actuality the story is a bit more complicated.

Huskey spent the entire year of 1947 in England working at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) located in Teddington. He was to work on Alan Turing's ACE(Automatic Computing Engine) along with James Hardy (Wilkie) Wilkinson and Michael Woodger. John R. Womersley was Superintendent. Womersley arranged for Huskey to visit other computer projects during January of 1947.

The locations visited included Maurice Wilkes who was building the EDSAC at Cambridge and Fred Williams at Manchester. (This information comes from Huskey's autobiography, Harry D. Huskey, His Story)

Tom Kilburn picks up the story here as he describes a conversation between himself, Fred Williams, Ted Newman and Geoff Tootill at Manchester.
Now out of one conversation between the four people I've mentioned came the index register as being the best new suggestion for the machine; and so we put in the B-tube. It's called the B-tube because we had an accumulator and a control - A and C - and so we called it "B".
Kilburn also mentions a visit from Wilkie Wilkinson from NPL who had in fact been a tutor of his at Cambridge.

Dik Leatherdale notes:
In point of fact, Manchester always referred to "B-lines" as the register contents were stored as lines of dots on the face of a CRT storage device (the Williams Tube). This name persisted long after the demise of CRT storage.
Many thanks to Dik for bringing this additional documentation to my attention.