Who would win in a race between an iPhone, a Windows 95 PC and the world’s oldest working computer?
The answer might seem obvious, but as unlikely as it seems, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
The matter will be settled once and for all on Saturday, when The National Museum of Computing in the UK will hold its inaugural Grand Computer Race.
The race will pit seven computers against each other, one from every decade going back to the 1950s, the dawn of computing, and will run the gamut from machines that read instructions off paper tape through to a voice-controlled smartphone.
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Competing will be the 1951 Harwell WITCH — the world’s oldest working computer, a 1960s PDP-8, an Apple II, the British 1980s home computer favorite the BBC Micro, a 1990s Windows PC, a BBC Micro:Bit board and an iPhone 6.
Each machine will calculate a Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers that starts with 0 and 1, with each subsequent number calculated by adding the two numbers preceding it. The winner will be the machine that prints out the largest number within one minute.
Certain choices will help level the playing field to offset the tremendous advantage that decades of exponentially increasing computing power gives more modern devices.
For instance, the decision to have someone input each number into the iPhone using their voice puts a natural brake on the speed of calculations, and while the BBC Micro:Bit may be a modern device, it runs on a board with a fraction of the processing power of a modern PC.
Andrew Herbert, chairman of the trustees at The National Museum of Computing, said: “Because we’re running on machines from different decades of computing, each of the programmers has had to think how to best go about generating those Fibonacci numbers using their style of computing.
“On the older machines the programs are on punched paper tape, and maybe the output is coming out on the teleprinter. The computers from the home-computer era, they’ve got screens and can run a program written in a language like BASIC, but the people on the older machines perhaps have to run their programs in machine code, which makes their programs run faster.
“The people on the more modern machines have the opportunity to use more modern languages like Python and they have the opportunity of using voice commands or touch-systems on their screen.”
The event, being held to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the museum’s opening, will take place at 2.30pm on Saturday 17 February at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.