Elliott 803

Some History

The Elliott 803 was a British built computer dating from about 1960. A fairly large number were sold - maybe around 200 to 300 (which was a lot of computers in 1960!) - at a cost of around £30,000 (GBP). That's probably about the equivalent of around £500,000 ($800,000 USD) in today's money.

For that money you got a room full of refrigerator sized cabinets stuffed full of germanium transistors and ferrite cores. You also got an operator's console with a pleasingly large number of buttons to press.

You got a mere 8K of memory (though memory words were 39 bits long and could hold two complete machine instructions, so this is probably closer to 48K to 64K on a modern machine) and a processor with clock speed of around 2kHz.

Computer Room

The main input, output and program storage was via paper tape, usually 5 hole tape encoded using Elliott telecode, although mass storage via magnetic tape (actually magnetic 35mm film) was also available.

Despite the size of the machine it was essentially a "personal computer", as it had no operating system and basically ran one program at a time. You wrote and edited your program (probably still spelled "programme" in those days) off-line on a teletype device and when it was ready took the paper tape to the machine, put its in the tape reader and pressed the appropriate buttons to get it to run - or maybe you had someone who did the button pressing for you.

Various language compilers were available - I know we had an Assembler, an Autocode and BASIC - but by far the best was an almost full implementation of the new (in 1960 anyway) and hugely influential ALGOL 60. Much of the work on that complier was done by the legendary Tony Hoare in, I believe, one of his first real jobs in the computer industry.

Fond Memories

Because the machine was quite popular there are a fair number of us "old programmers" around who remember their first encounters with the Elliott 803 with some affection.

I first used one in 1974 because the school I went to had one. Of course by 1974 it was long out of date, but that was why the school had managed to get hold of it. It was still being used when I left in about 1981, but I don't think it lasted much longer! I spent quite a lot of time programming it, mostly in ALGOL.

Further information

Quite a lot of additional information can be found by searching the internet for "Elliott 803". A few starting points include:

After starting out programming on the Elliott 803 I bought a Compukit UK101 hobby computer sometime around 1980. You can find my simulation of that machine here.

Tim Baldwin
December 2013
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© Tim Baldwin 2009,2013