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Computers use 3D CAD to recreate their 1940s predecessor

27 March 2013

Teversham Engineering is recreating the past by designing the historic EDSAC computer with Dassault Systèmes’ SolidWorks software.

EDSAC (photo: Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge)
EDSAC (photo: Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge)

Cambridge based Teversham Engineering is using SolidWorks 3D CAD software to design an authentic replica of one of the most important early British digital computers. The replica of EDSAC, which ran its first program on 6th May 1949, will be recreated at the National Museum of Computing located at Bletchley Park. The ambitious EDSAC replica project is unusual in that today, one generation of computers is used to design the next. This project is doing the opposite – recreating the past.

EDSAC – Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator – was initially built to help scientists at Cambridge University to tackle problems that could not have been solved before. Professor (later Sir) Maurice Wilkes, who designed the original EDSAC, had the idea of making a machine that would be a workhorse for Cambridge scientists. EDSAC could execute about 850 instructions per second. The computers being used to recreate the sheet metalwork for the EDSAC replica, using SolidWorks, are approximately three million times as fast.

The original machine comprised 140 chassis units, yet a mere three of these are known to have survived. No drawings were ever created. One of the remaining chassis was made available to Teversham Engineering in Cambridge, along with a handful of photographs and notebooks. Teversham managing director, Alan Willis takes up the story.

“Volunteers from the EDSAC project came in and said, ‘Do you think you can work with that?’. Well, knowing what we have done with SolidWorks software in the past and the skill levels that we have, we felt we could do it justice. Taking something that is a bit of history, and to make it work again with so little information was an exciting challenge”.

Using one surviving chassis, Teversham Engineering was able to record the original dimensions and remodel it in SolidWorks. “This way of reverse engineering using SolidWorks was a piece of cake”, said Alan Willis. “We were able to quickly model the common chassis shape, and then configure it into lots of variants for the different valve configurations.”

Andrew Herbert, manager of the EDSAC Replica Project said: "It is fascinating watching a computer that is really a direct descendant of EDSAC used in the production of the EDSAC Replica. EDSAC was the first computer in the world designed from the outset to provide a computing service, and it helped a large number of Cambridge University’s scientists and engineers to solve practical problems and assist in fundamental research. Here in the production of the replica we have a marvelous example of how powerful and adaptable computing has become over the six decades since the trail-blazing EDSAC first ran".

Plans to rebuild the pioneering EDSAC computer are now a step closer to completion as parts that will form its metal chassis have started to be manufactured. The first rack will be assembled by the volunteers at The National Museum of Computing shortly.

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