Steam-powered computers: Retro cool or old and busted?

The silicon is weak, but the iron is strong

Bork!Bork!Bork! "Steam powered" is occasionally used in an unkind fashion to describe computer hardware past its best. Today's entry in the bork archives takes the phrase to a whole other place.

Lurking in the town of Swindon is a museum dedicated to the UK's Great Western Railway (GWR), on the site of an old railway works. It's an excellent place, and well worth a visit – indeed, there is an authentic GWR Signal box in which enthusiasts can yank signal levers, replete with helpful information on the... oh dear.

Computer error in a signal box

Click to enlarge

Despite the exhibit taking pride of place on the museum's web page, when our eagle eyed reader, Alastair Stevens, took a trip there, he found that all was not well in the digital world, even if the decidedly analogue controls of yesteryear remained available.

At first glance, we'd suspect this is another case of a dying CMOS battery. We're not sure of the age of the kit in question, but that Samsung drive is hardly a spring chicken and exactly why a rig used to educate and inform a viewer on the finer points of signal operation needs a DVD writer is anyone's guess.

Sadly, there is no keyboard present upon which to strike the F1 or F2 keys, unless some wag has helpfully rigged up the levers to function as an impromptu input device. Perhaps a bit of Arduino action and a USB connector would do the trick (certainly, that's how we persuaded a Raspberry Pi to recognise a 40 year-old TI99/4a keyboard.)

A keyboard operated by elderly signal lever would also most likely be a good deal more reliable than some of Apple's efforts in recent years.

As for the museum itself, we are delighted to report that it reopened in May. It's a splendid place for likers of steam-powered big iron (no, not the IBM mainframes of old) and industrial history fans alike and has some really rather excellent locomotives on show, as well as rolling stock. A recreation of the Swindon Works is also on offer and, frankly, who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?

Sadly, the age of steam seems to have passed for the stricken screen. If only the CMOS had been coal-fired, the computer might still be running. ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics

Other stories you might like

  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022