The Vacuum Tube Supercomputer Centre

The Vacuum Tube Supercomputer Centre, a fanciful effort by the Hughs Ominous Valve Works, provides an interesting look at how computers might have evolved if the transistor and the integrated circuit had never come into being. Offering “true vector computing at competitive prices”, the Supercomputing Centre

“makes maintenance possible with a fork lift instead of tweezers and a magnifier, and allows a modularity and openness previously impossible in supercomputer architecture. Our industry-leading record for uptime is no accident, as it is common for employees to be changing out or even rewiring circuits while the computer continues steaming away at full speed.”

Computer manufacturers turned to the transistor in the 1950’s, because vacuum tubes tended to leak, and the metal that emitted electrons in the vacuum tubes burned out. Vacuum tubes required so much power that big and complicated circuits were physically too large and took a great deal of energy to run. In the late 1940's, large vacuum tube-based computers were built with over 10,000 tubes; they occupied over 93 square meters of space.

The Vacuum Tube Supercomputing Centre solves the power problem - by providing lots of power. Their “coal-fed boilers power some of the largest turbogenerators ever built by Westinghouse... six of them.”


(From Vacuum Tube Supercomputer Tour)

The random access memory for the computer requires an entire building - "Each module in the RAM Building has railroad access across its entire length, with a large, industrial crane to quickly lift replacement modules or crates of fresh tubes to any part of the facility within minutes."

Since science fiction authors have been imagining the future of computing since the 1940’s, it’s easy to find examples of really "big iron" in their works.

From Robert Heinlein's The Star Beast:

The universal dictionary in the British Museum was not more knowledgeable than the one in the Under Secretary's office; it's working parts occupied an entire building in another part of the Capital, and its staff of cyberneticists, semanticians and encyclopedists endlessly fed its hunger for facts.
(Read more about the universal dictionary)

From Watchdog by Jack Haldeman:

...the earth shook and the sky split as the giant rockets lifted the soul and body of man to Pluto and the distant stars.

Only he stayed behind.

Basically he was six hundred square miles of squat building, with control over a world-wide network of smaller stations and probes.

A babysitter.
(Read more about Watchdog)

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:

"I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me," intoned Deep Thought, his voice regaining its accustomed declamatory tones. "A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix."

"And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its ten-million-year program! Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called The Earth."
(Read more about Deep Thought)

Find out more about the Vacuum Tube Supercomputer Centre; thanks to Dan for the tip on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/21/2005)

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