Please note, this is archived content and is no longer being updated. Please update your bookmarks and links to point to this permanent URL:

   Memories of the Ferranti Atlas computer

The high-performance Atlas computer was developed in the period 1956 – 1962 by a team led by Professor Tom Kilburn at the University of Manchester.  The local company Ferranti Ltd. joined the project in 1959.  The first production Atlas was inaugurated at Manchester University on 7th December 1962 by Sir John Cockcroft, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was Director of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority.  At the time of its inauguration, Atlas was reckoned to be the world’s most powerful computer.  A total of six Atlas 1 and Atlas 2 computers were delivered between 1962 and 1966.

Following the 50th Anniversary celebrations in December 2012, it was decided to collect reminiscences and historical anecdotes from the surviving designers and users of Atlas computers. This new collection, listed below, supplements existing information available on websites such as: Chilton computing and Computer Heritage and the personal accounts from pioneers that have appeared from time to time in the Computer Conservation Society's quarterly bulletin Resurrection.

   Downloadable Atlas anecdotes and histories

The authors of the following documents welcome comments and discussion on these, and other historical matters. In the first instance, please contact the Editor.

Additional original contributions from former Atlas people are encouraged. Note that the Atlas blogsite, set up in December 2012, has now been discontinued and the only two substantial blog contributions have been incorporated into the list below.

  • The Atlas Story.
    Author: Simon Lavington
    Abstract: Originally produced for the Atlas Symposium held on 5th December 2012 in the School of Computer Science, Kilburn Building, University of Manchester, this illustrated booklet gives the history of the Atlas project from its inception and implementation to the switching-off of the last working Atlas.
  • NRDC and the case for a British supercomputer, 1956 to 1960.
    Author: Simon Lavington
    Abstract: This paper describes the political, technological and marketing background leading to the decision to develop the Atlas computer by Manchester University and Ferranti Ltd.
  • Timeline of the MUSE/Atlas project at Manchester University, 1955-1971.
    Author: Simon Lavington
    Abstract: The paper lists the steps in the evolution of the Manchester Atlas project from the prototype Mercury computer (Meg) in 1954, through the decision by Manchester University to build a fast computer in 1957, the involvement of Ferranti in 1958 and the official inauguration in 1962, to the final switch-off in 1971.
  • The Compiler Compiler - Reflections of a User 50 Years On.
    Author: George Coulouris
    Abstract: Describes the author's use of the Brooker-Morris Compiler Compiler in the development of the CPL1 compiler for the London University Atlas. author
  • Memories of Atlas Fortran.
    Author: Ian Pyle
    Abstract: The Atlas Fortran compiler and its associated programming system were intended to ease the transition in 1964 of Harwells computing work from the then current computers to the new Atlas. To do this, we had to have the compiler available when the Atlas arrived. So we made a cross-compiler on the IBM 7090, which produced cards that could be loaded onto the Atlas, needing only the loader on the Atlas itself. By writing the compiler in Fortran, it could translate itself. I think this was the first Fortran compiler written for an non-IBM computer, and the first use of this bootstrapping technique for a compiler.
  • My involvement with Atlas: reminiscences of events.
    Author: Brian Hardisty
    Abstract: Describes the authors involvement with the Atlas Supervisor and Atlas customer support, and the influence of this time on his working life.
  • Atlas 2 at Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory.
    Author: Barry Landy
    Abstract: This paper plots the development of the TITAN/Atlas 2 at Cambridge, and the work done to turn it into a multi-user, time-shared system. It also briefly mentions the other two production Atlas 2s, at Aldermaston and the CADCentre in Cambridge.
  • Days and nights with the Manchester Atlas.
    Author: Ann Moffatt
    Abstract: In 1962, Ann Moffatt was an applications programmer with Kodak, and was one of the staff from early Atlas users who were corralled by Ferranti to help debug the Supervisor. The paper describes her experiences working on Atlas at Manchester during the commissioning of the machine.
  • Recollections of the Computer Laboratory at Manchester 1955 to 1964.
    Author: David Aspinall
    Abstract: The paper describes the authors work as a post-graduate student at Manchester, which led to him being invited to join the Atlas design team. It covers his involvement with the development of the arithmetic unit and magnetic tape control, and the commissioning of MUSE, the Manchester University Atlas.
  • Anecdotes of an Atlas maintenance engineer
    Author: John Crowther
    Abstract: John Crowther joined Ferranti in 1962 from Manchester University and became a maintenance engineer, working on the London University Atlas. His reminiscences beautifully illustrate the problems (and the pleasure) of working on a supercomputer in the 1960s.
  • The footloose Australian - Peter Jones' Atlas experience
    Author: Peter D. Jones
    Abstract: Peter Jones worked for Ferranti on Atlas from 1961 to the end of 1963. During this time, as well as working on the Supervisor, he represented the company at conferences and sales presentations throughout the world and was christened 'the footloose Australian' by Tom Kilburn.
  • The London University Atlas
    Author: Dik Leatherdale
    Abstract: This is the edited transcript of a talk given at the Atlas 50th Anniversary Symposium on 5th December 2012. It traces the history of the London University Atlas from purchase to eventual closure.
  • The story of Atlas, a computer
    Author: Iain Stinton.
    Abstract: This 75-page book, originally published in 1973, has recently been transcribed by Dik Leatherdale and Bob Hopgood. The book outlines the history of the London University ATLAS and gives an informal description of the way in which the machine operated.
  • Audio interview 1: Atlas Supervisor (Howarth/Wyld)
    Abstract: Transcript of a 40-minute audio interview with D J Howarth and M T Wyld, conducted in Manchester by Simon Lavington on 6th December 2012. David Howarth and Mike Wyld were intimately involved in the design and implementation of the Atlas Supervisor (the Operating System).
  • Audio- interview 2: Atlas hardware (Edwards/Chen)
    Abstract: Transcript of a 58-minute audio interview with D B G Edwards and E C Y Chen, conducted in Manchester by Simon Lavington on 6th December 2012. Dai Edwards and Yao Chen were intimately involved in the design and implementation of Atlas hardware.
  • Engineering credibility
    Author: Dik Leatherdale
    Abstract: Was it a hardware error or a software bug? This is the story of a tricky fault on the London Atlas. Much detective work was required before a particular program could be induced to work again. This time, it was the hardware that was to blame.
  • Yao Chen rides to the rescue
    Author: Dik Leatherdale
    Abstract: Yao Chen became Ferranti's chief fixer of Atlas hardware faults. This paper describes an incident at the London University site in the early 1970s that nicely illustrates Yao's skills.
  • Chilton Atlas hardware at the National Museums Scotland
    Author: Simon Lavington
    Abstract: Most of the hardware from the Chilton Atlas was donated to the Royal Scottish Museum in 1973, where it remains in storage. This illustrated report, written for the National Museums Scotland, includes a technical description of the artefacts and their relation to the original Atlas installation at Chilton.
  • Designing and building Atlas
    Author: Dai Edwards
    Abstract: This article, which first appeared in Resurrection, is written by the person who led the hardware design team. It deals with the technical challenges that were overcome in producing an advanced computer.
  • Mercury Autocode, Atlas Autocode and some associated matters
    Author: Vic Forrington
    Abstract:Vic joined Tony Brooker's group at Manchester University in 1961, after two years' work at RAE Farnborough using Mercury Autocode. He provided user support on Mercury and Atlas, undertook research in numerical analysis and helped Tony with the specification of Atlas Autocode. Vic was involved with various other Atlas programming activities and his reflections on his pre- and post- Manchester periods make fascinating reading.
  • Tony Brooker and the Atlas Compiler Compiler
    Author: Simon Lavington and many others.
    Abstract: Tony Brooker, the originator of the Compiler Compiler (CC), led the group that wrote compilers for the Manchester Atlas. This article uses the memories of team members to describe the origins of the CC and its use at several of the Atlas sites. A special section, written by Tony, reflects on the CC's techniques and the relationship with other compiler generators.

   Other Atlas material

A short documentary film was produced by Google in 2012. This features extracts from a 1962 Ferranti film and interviews with some of the people involved with the Atlas project.

Some pictures of Atlas are in our gallery.

An Atlas emulator and an Atlas simulator are available.

Website maintained by the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester.


BCS logo

IET logo

STFC logo

University of Manchester logo