Science and Technology Facilities Council
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UK Laboratory celebrates 50 years of supercomputing

UK computing has yesterday celebrated fifty years since the launch of what was at that time the largest supercomputer in the world, the Atlas 1. When built it was the size of a large detached house. Now that same computing capacity would fit in your pocket inside your mobile phone.

The Ferranti Atlas 1 computer was the largest of three world leading computers built in the UK. It cost around £3M – equivalent to about £80M in today’s currency – and was so enormous the Atlas Computer Laboratory, as it was known then, was built to fit the computer.In 1964, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire opened the UK’s first purpose-built computer laboratory to house one of the world’s first supercomputers. Not only did this facility go on to produce the world’s first computer animated films during the mid-seventies it also contributed the 3D wire-frame model shown on the navigation monitors in the landing sequence of the Ridley Scott film ‘Alien’ – making it the Industrial Light and Magic or Weta computer animation facility of its day.

This week, on 13 – 14 November, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is opening RAL’s doors to celebrate those 50 years of supercomputing, with a series of talks, tours and exhibits to highlight the importance of this computer facility to society today.

In the 1960s and 70s, universities and other research establishments that needed to use computing facilities had to put their program and data onto punch cards and post them to the Atlas Computing Laboratory, where their program would be run for them.

Dr Andrew Taylor, Executive Director, STFC National Laboratories, said, “Since those early days, computing at RAL has gone from strength to strength, and the Atlas Centre is now home to Tier One – where data from the Large Hadron Collider is stored in the UK, as well as a range of other facilities such those which process data from weather satellites. Fifty years on, the technology is so far advanced that a mobile phone is more powerful and far cheaper than the Atlas computer.”

The original Atlas Computer Laboratory established a national computing operation to support scientific research. Since 1964 that UK computing operation has been a part of many technical and scientific innovations. It has contributed to the governance of the World Wide Web; it has managed the data which led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and it continues to support major scientific experiments at facilities in the UK and internationally.The Atlas processor used more than 5,600 circuit boards, which would have covered an area about the size of a tennis court – around 90,000 times bigger than a modern computer chip. One of its discs could hold just two photographs, whereas today’s equivalent, the USB stick, can store thousands of images.

The world's first computer animations were produced at the laboratory. These included an animated model of stress-loading across an M6 motorway bridge that was being built at the time. It was the first entirely computer-produced engineering film to be made in the UK and won the Great Britain entry in the 1976 international Technical Films Competition in Moscow. Most famously, the laboratory's facilities were used to produce the 3D wire-frame model shown on the navigation monitors in the landing sequence of the Ridley Scott film ‘Alien’, which won the 1979 Academy Award for best visual effects.

People touring the Atlas Centre exhibits during these 50th Anniversary celebrations will discover the rich history of computing innovations at RAL, from the very beginning of supercomputers to the endless possibilities of today.

Dr Taylor added, “We are particularly excited that, in its 50th anniversary year, we are able to display the console from the original Atlas computer, together with memorabilia of the time.”

Though the Atlas computing operation has gone from strength to strength the Ferranti Atlas 1 itself closed in March 1973 and was replaced by an ICT1906A. In the eight years of operation it had run for 44,500 hours with a 97% up time. 836,000 jobs were run, 300 million cards read, 4000 million characters from paper tape read, 800 million lines of line-printer output generated and 17 million cards punched.

For images or interviews please contact:

Marion O’Sullivan 
STFC Press Officer
Tel: +44(0) 1235 445627
Mob: +44(0) 7824 888990

Notes for editors:


  1. 50th anniversary event 
    Thursday 13 November – see programme below at note 4 for more information Friday 14 November – School visits. Oxfordshire MP Ed Vaizey will visit during the schools sessions in the morning.

  2. Photographs relating to the Atlas Computer Laboratory can be downloaded from the archive at Chilton Computing, Credit: STFC.
  3. Related video links:
  4. Programme for Thursday 13 November

    13:00 - 14:30: Past and Present (Lecture Theatre)

    • Introduction: Juan Bicarregui - Head of Data Division, STFC Scientific Computing Department
    • Welcome to RAL: Andrew Taylor - Executive Director of STFC National Laboratories
    • Computing at Chilton 1959-2000: Bob Hopgood - Atlas Computer Laboratory and RAL (1963-2000)
    • 50 years of the mathematical software library HSL: John Reid - Numerical Algorithms Group, STFC Scientific Computing Department
    • The Scientific Computing Department Today: David Corney - Acting Director, STFC Scientific Computing Department

    14:30 - 15:00: Break

    15:00 - 16:30: Future Directions (Lecture Theatre)

    • Future Directions for Computing in Particle Physics:Dave Britton - Professor of Physics, University of Glasgow, Leader of the GridPP project
    • Future directions in Gravitational Physics: Stephen Fairhurst - Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Cardiff, Chair of STFC Computing Advisory Panel
    • Future Directions in Digital Chemistry: Jeremy Frey - Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Southampton
    • The 4 forces of change for Intense-Computing: Cliff Brereton - Director Hartree Centre

    16:30 - 18:00: Reception and Exhibition (Exhibition Centre)

  5. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

    The STFC Scientific Computing Department provides large scale HPC facilities, computing data services and infrastructure at both STFC Daresbury Laboratory and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

    The department also includes world leading experts in a number of scientific fields including computational chemistry, computational engineering, materials science, band theory, computational biology, advanced research computing, atomic and molecular physics, numerical analysis, software engineering, data services, petascale storage, scientific information and scientific computing technology.

    STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including in the UK the ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR, and is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.

    It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

    STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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