The computer, one thing you can reliably say about it, is that it keeps getting smaller and more powerful with each iteration, we even have laws that say so. One plucky Brit has, however set out to buck this trend and is building a fourteen metre long, 16-bit “mega processor” in his home.
James Newman, a digital electronics engineer from Cambridge who has been working on the project for over 3 years, has so far spent around £20,000 and only has 3 of the required 7 panels finished, so he isn’t going to be competing with Intel any time soon. So why do it? His short answer is marvelously British “Because I want to”.
He does go into more detail however, saying “Computers are quite opaque, looking at them it’s impossible to see how they work. What I would like to do is get inside and see what’s going on. Trouble is, we can’t shrink down small enough to walk inside a silicon chip, but we can go the other way; we can build the thing big enough that we can walk inside it. Not only that, we can also put LEDs on everything so we can actually SEE the data moving and the logic happening. It’s going to be great.”
While his enthusiasm for the project has waxed and waned over the last 3 years and he has already missed several (self appointed) deadlines, he now says he hopes to finish the project by the end of 2015. His next problem is where he’s going to put it. Each panel containing a part of the processor is 2 metres square, meaning, in his words, “When it’s set up and running in the living room, there won’t be much space for living,” Still, he is undaunted by the prospect of living with the colossal computer and has even considered lining his hall with it.
So, what are his plans once it’s finished? After all, it’s expected to weigh in at about half a tonne when complete, so it’s not exactly portable. He is currently using a simulation of the megaprocessor to write programs for the finished article including the game of life, noughts and crosses and (he hopes) tetris.
Personally I wish him well in his seemingly quixotic endeavour. The first computer I ever used was soldered together from a kit, but that did use chips rather than individual transistors. I’ve also seen the room sized valve based Colossus computer built at Bletchley Park. I’d love to one day take a walk down James Newman’s hallway.