The 16th of November 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the execution of a program by the world’s first transistor computer at the University of Manchester. The computer was built by Dick Grimsdale, then a research student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and now a Professor of Electronic Engineering at Sussex University.
The machine used point-contact transistors, made in small quantities by STC and Mullard. These consisted of a single crystal of germanium with two fine wires, resembling the crystal and cat’s whisker of the 1920’s. These transistors had the useful property that a single transistor could possess two stable states. The Manchester Ferranti Mark I was in service at that time and, being a valve machine, required a large room to accommodate the 4000 valves and associated circuits and consumed 27kW of power. The transistor computer was much smaller and consumed 150 watts. The memory was a magnetic drum, a cylindrical version of today’s hard disk drives. The arithmetic and control registers were on the drum, in the form of delay lines with reading heads displaced a short distance from the writing heads around the circumference. The development of the machine was severely hampered by the unreliability of the transistors.
A commercial version of the transistor computer was built by Metropolitan-Vickers of Trafford Park, as the MV950. Some six machines gave reliable service in the engineering departments of the company for several years.