Look back to move forward

27 December 2012

Last month the world’s oldest working digital computer was rebooted after three years of painstaking rebuilding. The machine was found in a storeroom where it had been left abandoned for 15 years. In its prime in the 1950s the computer had been used by the UK’s atomic energy research programme. The 2.5t machine will now take pride of place at Bletchley Park, the site of the English code breaking efforts during World War II.

The revival of this old machine, known as 'The Witch', should act as inspiration for the revival of other machinery, developments or methods that have been left languishing in the industry's storeroom.

In his paper on page 29, technical writer Maurice Jones looks at alternative cutting methods, picking up on techniques that could replace the established approaches in disc cutters, scrapers, drills and roadheaders.

But in looking to the future, Jones has dragged up the past.

The paper looks at the early trials of water jets for cutting large sections of rock and hypothesises on the potential for further development. The history of tunnelling is riddled with pioneering techniques that have fallen short of the mark, but, as other engineering and manufacturing fields advance, these methods could be revived. The vertical boring machine is an example of one development that has been tried, and revisted every decade or so.

German manufacturer Herrenknecht and US manufacturer Robbins both have machines in advance development.

With each effort the latest technology has been employed and the machines have moved closer to becoming real alternatives to traditional and established shaft sinking methods.

The Witch computer stands as a testament to revival after abandonment. Perhaps it is time to route though those drawers and see what ideas might be worth revisiting.