What does a computer from the 1940s look like? It definitely doesn’t look like a modern-day desktop or laptop — which is probably why a large piece of the U.K.’s earliest computer seemed to disappear after it was auctioned off in the 1950s, only to be discovered thousands of miles away in the U.S.
The computer known as EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) was built in Cambridge, England and ran its first computation in 1949. Although the machine took up an entire room, scientists used it frequently to analyze data from various experiments.
The BBC explains that EDSAC was “decommissioned and dismantled” at some point in the 1950s and various parts of the computer were sold at auction.
The research team that created EDSAC ended up losing track of many of the pieces after auctioning them off, including one piece in particular called “Chassis 1A.”
It’s believed that many pieces of EDSAC are still sitting in “lofts, garden sheds, and garages,” likely because they look nothing like modern computer pieces. But Robert Little, a Pennsylvania resident and the most recent owner of Chassis 1A, heard that the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park had begun a project to reassemble EDSAC, and Little decided to donate Chassis 1A back to England.
Little had acquired Chassis 1A from Cambridge scientist Dr. Robert Clarke, who reportedly bought multiple server rack parts of EDSAC at auction, planning on turning the racks into bookshelves.
Although the bookshelf project never came to fruition, and although the other pieces bought by Clarke are still missing, the discovery of Chassis 1A is a major find for the National Museum of Computing in Cambridge. It’s in fairly rough shape after being stored improperly for so many decades, but the reconstruction team has stated that the piece is still very valuable. As one of the 14 chassis, which were placed on 12 individual racks, it’s expected that Chassis 1A will play a large role in explaining how EDSAC functioned and processed data.
Since officially handing over Chassis 1A to the reconstruction team, Little has expressed his regret that the piece’s location remained unknown for so long — and that more pieces of EDSAC haven’t been recovered for the project.
According to the Cambridge News, the research team is asking anyone who thinks they may have a piece of EDSAC to contact the museum directly. Even if the team does not manage to recover any more pieces of EDSAC, the reconstruction project will continue and will hopefully be completed by the end of the year.