Portrait of world’s oldest computer rediscovered in Manchester cafe – The Guardian

A long-lost portrait of a historic computer – built in 1951 and now the oldest working digital computer in the world – has resurfaced on a cafe bar wall in Manchester.

The artist John Yeadon first saw the Witch (the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell) in 1982 in the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham. He was fascinated, even though it had become a sad ghost of its former glory at the cutting edge of computing technology.

He tried to capture its character – which he described as a “diabolical contraption, a dusty hunk of electric and mechanical hardware that reminded me of the disturbing 1950’s Quatermass science fiction television series” – in a near-lifesize two metre by three metre Portrait of a Dead Witch, which he also intended as a joke about the contemporary craze for computer-generated art. He described it as a portrait rather than a still life: “I think I had some idea that the painting brought the computer back to life, or at least to another life.”

Painting and computer both disappeared for years. The Witch, originally the Harwell Dekatron, built at Harwell in Oxfordshire, was in service for years at Wolverhampton Technical College before being moved to the museum, where it ended up dismantled. It was rediscovered by Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, where it was fully restored to working order through hundreds of hours of volunteer work.

When Murrell learned of the painting – through an article in the Morning Star – the museum launched a national search, eventually discovering that it spent years on loan to a school in Leicestershire before being sold when it became an academy. It then passed through several owners before it was bought by Kaldip Bhamber, who wanted something large and colourful to fill a wall in her new enterprise, the Jam Street Cafe Bar in Manchester.

Bhamber, who has an art degree, was enchanted when she discovered the history of her acquisition. “I really didn’t have any idea of what the painting depicted, but I fell in love with it,” she said.

Yeadon, who had been enraged that it was sold off from a former public collection, has visited its new home and is delighted to see it back on public display.


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