London Lantern

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ERNIE at The Science Museum

24/06/2008, By

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For those that remember, this is not referring to the 'fastest milkman in the West' but instead to Britain's best-loved 'computer', which is to go on permanent display at the Science Museum. ERNIE 1, the first generation of the machine which randomly generates winning premium bond numbers, took its place in the History of Computing gallery on Thursday 26th June. Alongside ERNIE are photographs from the launch of Premium Bonds in 1956, original posters advertising Bonds and items reflecting the immense popularity of ERNIE, including cards and poems sent to the random number generator by the British public.

Premium Bonds were launched for sale by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, in November 1956, with the first numbers drawn the following June. The draws were an instant hit with the British public. Millions of people checked to see if ERNIE had come up with their numbers. Draws were televised and celebrities and members of the public were keen to visit and pose with ERNIE, a machine which had acquired human characteristics and become a celebrity in ‘his’ own right.

ERNIE's 5th Birthday

At the time of the launch, Shadow Chancellor, Harold Wilson had described Premium Bonds as ‘a squalid raffle.’ But the public came to see Premium Bonds as a secure way to save, with the added monthly chance of winning money, including the top prize of £1,000. By 1961, thirteen million people had invested £339 million in Premium Bonds and ERNIE signified a new form of public trust in machines.

Weighing 1.8 tonnes and the size of a van, ERNIE (Electric Random Number Indicator Equipment) ran for sixteen years from 1957 until 1972 and was followed by ERNIE 2 in 1973, ERNIE 3 in 1988 and ERNIE 4 in 2004, with each machine smaller and faster than the last. The first draw ran day and night for two and a half days, longer than anticipated, because ERNIE was stopped at one point to allow its engineers to sleep.

Aside from its cultural influence, ERNIE has great technological importance. It was the ‘son of’ the world’s first digital electronic computer, the code breaking Colossus, created during World War II to read messages sent by German commanders. ERNIE was built at the same place as Colossus, the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, and by some of the same engineers. The Colossus machine was so secret that it was not until well into the 1970s that people began to hear of Colossus’s wartime code breaking exploits, and the link between Colossus and ERNIE became clear.

Technically, ERNIE was very advanced. It used a hybrid of valves and transistors with printed circuit boards, at a time when the use of transistors was novel. But ERNIE was particularly groundbreaking. The first machine to rapidly generate random Premium Bond numbers, ERNIE used the random movement of electrons in a neon diode to achieve this through a physically random event.

Costing £25,000 to build, ERNIE was an early example of a commercial use of this kind of technology. Although ERNIE uses many of the technologies that became commonplace in computing and telecommunications, technically the machine is not a computer as he does not ‘compute’ and is not programmable – he just generates random numbers which cannot be tampered with.

Tilly Blyth, Curator of Computing at the Science Museum, said: ‘This is a very important machine in the history of computing in Britain, as well as being one of the most-loved. Now, we see computers as an invaluable part of our daily lives, but it was ERNIE that helped us become confident in the use of digital electronic machines, as we could see his benefits – namely, the possibility of winning big money!’

Tim Mack, National Savings & Investments’s Head of Marketing, said: ‘ERNIE has always been at the forefront of technology. ERNIE 4, which is now used to reveal today’s winners, produces 50,000 Premium Bond numbers in the time it takes to boil an egg. Because of the popularity of Premium Bonds today, if ERNIE 1 were used for the prize draw he would take 52 days to generate the numbers, while ERNIE 4 takes just three hours to complete the entire draw.‘

Science Museum
Exhibition Road
London SW7 2DD
+44 (0)870 870 4868
Nearest tube: South Kensington
Science Museum is open daily from 10.00 to 18.00
Admission to the Museum is free

Images copyright National Savings & Investments’

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