Thursday, 13 November 2014

Where were the world's first computer animations produced?

Part of one floor of the Atlas installation
(courtesy Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and
the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC))
We are all so used to CGI that it's not even a surprise these days when the effects on Dr Who are passable. But 50 years ago, things were very different. Usually the only computer animation you could expect was watching the punched tape or cards fly through the reader. But where was the first seed planted for the future wonders of CGI that would make practically any modern science fiction or action film possible? Was it MIT? Hollywood? No, it was Oxfordshire. In the wonderful Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Let me hand you over to Marion at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (based in sunny Swindon):

UK computing is today celebrating 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.

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.

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.

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 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 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 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.

You can read more about Atlas at its website. Here are those groundbreaking wireframe graphics in a clip from Alien, but it French to make it more noir:

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