DAS FLIEGENDE GEHIRN or "A BRAIN GROWS WINGS"
by R. Stuart-Williams,B.Sc.,A.M.I.E.E.,M.I.R.E. &
D.J.P. Byrd, B.Sc.,Grad.l.E.E., Computer Group, Moston,
During the summer of 1950 the Festival of Britain
authorities approached Ferranti Ltd. to ask them if they
could exhibit an electronic computer in the Science section
of the Exhibition at South Kensington. This was agreed
in principle, the intention being to exhibit one of the
large scale scientific computers of the type now installed
in Manchester University. Eventually however, it was
decided that such an exhibit would be too costly and
complex, and on November 30th., 1950 the Festival of
Britain authorities were informed that we could not supply
a large machine, but that we were prepared to design and
build a special small machine suitable for demonstrating
the techniques employed in larger computers. During
December a design of a machine to play the game of "NIM"
was produced and by January 1st. 1951 this was approved
both by the Festival of Britain and Ferranti Ltd.
Detailed design on this machine, which was called
"Nimrod", commenced in January and the design and
construction were complete at the beginning of April.
The machine was removed to London and was working by
May 1st. 1951. Its weight was three and a half tons
which together with that of the dais etc. gave a total
weight of just over four tons. The machine itself was
nine feet high, twelve feet long and five feet wide.
Four engineers and five members of the experimental
workshop were required for nearly three weeks to erect it.
During this time a total of 46 normal man-weeks were
Originally it had been intended that "Nimrod"
should be dismantled on September 30th. when the
exhibition closed, but on Friday, 21st. September we were
asked by the Board of Trade to consider exhibiting the
machine in Berlin immediately after the Festival. The
annual Berlin Industrial Fair was to open on October 6th.
This fair is the German equivalent of our B.I.F., but in
addition to the normal trade exhibits there are a number
of national pavilions devoted to 'prestige' exhibits.
The United Kingdom Pavilion consists of an entrance hall
with two wings, in one of which it was proposed to house
the Telekinema and in the other "Nimrod". On considering
the time available our immediate reaction was to refuse,
but the Board of Trade, coupled with our desk diary,
informed us that:
"We are as much inclined to underrate our
possibilities as to overrate our achievements".
We therefore examined the problem with great care and
decided that if we worked 24 hours per day at twice the
normal rate the matter Was comparatively simple! On
Monday, 24th. September we agreed to exhibit "Nimrod".
In order to reduce erection time the structure
of the machine was altered during the nights of the
25th.,26th., 27th. and 28th. This made it possible to
move it without unsoldering any of the connections.
"Nimrod" was exhibited at South Kensington up to 6 p.m.
on Saturday, 29th. September. In order to simplify
erection in Berlin the team travelling to Berlin dismantled
the machine in London. This team consisted of Messrs.
Vogel, Gribble, Walters and Till, together with the Authors.
By 6 a.m. on Sunday, 30th. September the machine had been
dismantled and, except for one item, had been moved out of
the public portion of the building. The item that was not
moved was the main electronic rack, which weighed over a
ton. The remainder of Sunday was occupied in packing and
customs examination. Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. the machine
was loaded into a large van, the one-ton rack, thereafter
unprintably christened, causing much heartburn in its
passage through the buffet and kitchen! The van then
went to Blackbushe Aerodrome.
At 9 a.m. on Monday, the rest of the party arrived
at Blackbushe expecting to see the freighter as arranged
by the Board of Trade. The plane was there, but we were to
learn that aircraft reliability is sometimes no higher than
that of computers! This example had one of its engines
tucked neatly into its freight compartment. There was
much telephoning and finally a spare plane was located in
Paris. This arrived at 4 p.m. and promptly disgorged two
cars. We then expected to see the machine loaded, but it
was discovered that there was a large hole in one tyre.
The plane was jacked up and the wheel changed. It was then
discovered that the front doors would not shut. This
looked like complete disaster and sledge hammers were
brought up, but just in time somebody remembered that they
had forgotten to remove the jack! The plane was refuelled,
the machine loaded, and at long last we took off at 7.30 p.m.
travelling in the so-called "passenger compartment".
We landed at Amsterdam at 10 p.m. to refuel and
took off again at 11 p.m., having some difficulty in
convincing the customs authorities that "Nimrod" was not
an atom bomb! At Berlin, which we reached at 2 a.m., we
were met by Mr. Hacker of the Board of Trade, and Mr. Orton,
who had gone on ahead to make preliminary arrangements.
We started to unload at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and
got "Nimrod" to the exhibition site by 2 p.m. The
machine travelled through Berlin on three red-painted
flat-topped trailers behind a tractor; only the elephants
Six German mechanics were employed to assist in
erection, and although communication most nearly resembled
an Army PT squad, "Nimrod" was working 28 hours after
arrival at the exhibition. The complete assembly,
retouching of the paintwork and polishing of the machine
was completed without effort by Friday evening.
On Saturday, October 6th., the complete
exhibition was opened by Dr. Adenauer, the German Chancellor,
together with members of his cabinet. The British Pavilion
was opened by, General Bourne, Military Commandant of the
British Sector, at midday, with Dr. Adenauer and other
The problem of demonstrating the machine in
German was overcome by employing six German University
students. Dr, Prinz flew over on the Wednesday to train
these students, and also to receive any German V.I.P.s.
He found his job rather difficult as he had to create a
German computing vocabulary before he could explain the
It was extremely fortunate that Dr. Prinz was
present at the opening, as immediately after General Bourne
had finished speaking, the whole audience, headed by the
German Cabinet, moved in a body up to "Nimrod". The
unfortunate Professor Dr. Erhard, the Reich Minister for
Economic Affairs, was thrust forward by his colleagues
to play against the machine. Initially he was allowed to
battle against it unaided and was easily beaten.
General Bourne and Dr. Prinz then went to his aid but
unfortunately he was still beaten! Our Frontispiece shows
Professor Erhard, seated between them, actually undergoing
his ordeal. The German Newspapers, which do not appear
to be quite so polite as our own Press, were delighted by
the performance and produced large headlines and extremely
unflattering photographs and cartoons!
The German public was most interested and the large
crowds experienced at the opening were repeated throughout
the exhibition. Crowds of more than one thousand were
common, and at times up to five thousand, the full capacity
of the hall, were present. Two policemen were on continuous
duty to control the flow.
The existence of the machine was recognised
even by the East German papers, which finally produced a
report that the East Berlin Technical University had been
instructed to build a replica!
Four of the Party returned by train and boat on
Monday, 8th. October, leaving Messrs. Byrd and Gribble to
look after the exhibit until the end of the exhibition.
The latter returned by train on Wednesday the 24th. October,
"Nimrod" arriving at Moston by van on 2nd. November.
Mr. Orton returned by air on Friday, 26th. October.
"Nimrod" has now finished its career and is being
dismantled. The authors, in writing this final chapter
of its history, would like to thank all those who worked
so hard on the "Nimrod" project throughout the last
Confession - The authors understand neither the
full import of the title of this article nor of the caption
over the machine in the photograph! The language
difficulties throughout added considerably to the
entertainment provided by the proceedings!