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

"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 …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?"


    In the age now past of public gatherings, I used to participate in certain Steampunk events at a particular place in Luxembourg called Fond-de-Gras. They have 2 working steam-powered locomotives and you can basically park and take a train ride to an imaginary past.

    I personally think it is the absolute best place for a Steampunk convention or gathering, and that train ride is the perfect setting to take you from the modern world to an entirely different world in 20 minutes of coal-huffing rail.

    I really would like to be the driver of that train, so yeah, a steam train simulator ? Sign me up.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: "who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?"

      Visit the UK, lots of steam locos still in use.

      I recommend Bridgnorth.

      e.g. travel to Bridgnorth by train & last leg from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth will be on a steam train (they are in "proper" mainline use rather than trundling around on disconnected track sections of some of the more "hobbyist" lines, though must say those can be great fun too, live a few miles from a couple of different ones and enjoy occasional trips on them)

      Plus it has a funicular railway in the town as an added bonus..

      1. MyffyW Silver badge

        Re: "who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?"

        Another vote from me for the Severn Valley Railway and Bridgnorth-Kidderminster. It's the only steam railway I've seen a herd of elephants from.

        1. MJI Silver badge

          Re: "who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?"

          I once met a railway enthusiast who must have set the lap record for West Midlands Safari Park when he noticed the SVR.

          My thought was how did he not know about the SVR?

      2. MJI Silver badge

        Re: "who wouldn't enjoy a go on a steam train simulator?"

        Hmm SVR, been there a few times, usually gala weekends.

        Rode behind City of Truro there, a number of Deltics and Westerns, a Peak. Most of their own fleet including both 2-8-0s

  2. John Sturdy

    A steam-powered predecessor of Unix?

    I remember a temporary sign at the computer centre at the University of Bath, in the late 1980s, saying:

    MULTICS is down owing to boilerhouse failure at Bristol.

    I didn't enquire for details.

  3. MJI Silver badge

    I would rather not, why?

    Well I have ridden in a few cabs, both steam and Diesel, so a pretend one, no I will stick to my 4mm to the foot versions.

    Best are

    1) A Castle during GWR 150 around a depot

    2) A Peak a couple of years later

    3) Full length of a railway in late 80s I was a member of.

    Oh And I rode behind the same Castle to Swindon on one of the daily services.

  4. Martin an gof Silver badge

    Went there a few years ago

    Great museum, particularly the bit where you get to walk right underneath Caerphilly Castle. Was a bit disappointed that the audio-visual displays at the start of the tour were very much past their best, though as it's been seven or eight years, perhaps they've been renewed since. Intrigued that one exhibit - showing massive burn-in on a CRT - seemed to be Acorn-powered :-)

    Good birthday outing for a train-mad young boy though.


    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Went there a few years ago

      I would prefer my experiences with Clun Castle, main line haulage AND a very short cab ride*.

      * about the length of the loco.

  5. hamiltoneuk

    I'm trying to fix a 30 year old HP Vectra 486U PC at the moment. When new it was top of the range with EISA slots on a big motherboard with white footprints screened on the the PCB price tag about $4,000. Anyone out there know how to fix em?

    1. Down not across

      That's likely to depend on what is wrong with it. There is a good chance it may have some dry electrolytic caps (both PSU and motherboard).

  6. Dwarf

    Its a museum, shouldn't its computers by definition be old ones ?

  7. Dave 15


    Missed opportunity. Many many years back I wrote a small app that snagged the windows failure and rebooted - hands off and automatically. Seems I should have sold it.

    1. ChrisC Silver badge

      Re: ARGHHH

      Maybe you just forgot that you had sold it to the museum, hence the reason why their PC has now restarted and is stuck in the BIOS stage...

  8. heyrick Silver badge

    Note the previous fan failure. Maybe important bits are browner than they ought to be?

    And "strike" a key? Won't simply pressing it do, or do the BIOS authors simply anticipate aggression in response to a failure?

    1. aregross

      I agree, there's 2 problems here... Fan Failure (CPU overheating) and CMOS battery dead.

      RAID controller? Oh my... probably SCSI too!

  9. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Twenty years from now...

    The failure modes are going to be different. Windows will probably fail with something like "Upgrading to Windows XXX requires more modern hardware". Linux on PC could still fail from CMOS battery expiry but PC hardware might follow Pi's example: time from the network and configuration from flash. In that case the system will die in unpredictable ways from flash bitrot.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Twenty years from now...

      Come The Great Reset absence of 240v AC after might be a problem. Stick to a Raspi and at least you'll be able to power it from a phone charger, assuming you are willing to barter food or sexual favours with the feudal overlords.


  10. Steve E-G

    Magic Roundabout

    It may have come to grief trying to calculate the best way to navigate the Magic Roundabout just outside Swindon. I once watched someone go around the whole thing the wrong way and then just give up and stop.

    1. Just A Quick Comment

      Re: Magic Roundabout

      That's the brilliance of the Swindon Magic Roundabout. You can go around it either way.

    2. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Magic Roundabout

      The lack of clear signposting is worse. Try going from city centre to M5 without a map.

      The road to M5 is signposted M4 east!

    3. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Magic Roundabout

      Well the best advice I can give is to stop 100yds before and ask Florence and Ermintrude.

  11. AndrueC Silver badge

    I have a Queen Elizabeth and I give her a run now and again.

    Admittedly it's an N gauge locomotive so not as impressive as the real thing would've been :)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Upvote from this owner of a OO gauge "Duchess of Sutherland".

      1. AndrueC Silver badge

        Two things continue to tempt me toward OO:

        The Princess Elizabeth (what I really wanted) and an APT-E.

        But what keeps me interested in N is the amount of track I can fit in a small space :D

        1. MJI Silver badge


          I have problems with it, looks good in magazines and on the internet but too small FOR ME in real life.

          Then there are the 2mm vs N stuff. 2mm is easy to work out, but 1/148th 2.059mm/foot. Small sizes OK but nearly 4mm difference over a carriage.

          4mm is an easy answer and easy to model and measure. Plus I can see it.

          I have one big gripe with HO and O, the strange number of mm per foot.

          8'6" WB bogies are easy in OO EM P4, 34mm no calculator required, 12mm or 14mm wheels.

          Now O is not too painfull at 59.5mm 21mm 24.5mm but HO aghh I will just halve the O values.

          To anyone non UK, big trains were built in feet and inches, but models are built using mm rather than fractions of an inch unless you do S Scale (1/64).

          So sitting there chopping up materials it comes down to the British 4mm scales are the easiest to work out sizes for.

          Oh and for any scale and gauge purists insisting on British HO PECO now do ready to lay EM track.

      2. MJI Silver badge

        Hm Got nearly 40 locos (some are under construction) SD&E, HST power cars included

        31 DMU cars of which 6 scratch, 4 kit, 7 heavily modified, 6 more under construction

        Well over 120 carriages

        Lots of wagons

  12. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    CMOS battery failures on the increase?

    I suspect there will have been a lot of CMOS backup batteries failed while so many places were shut for so long and PCs were left powered down for many, many months, especially on older kit where the battery might have been a few years old before the kit was switched off for it's long hibernation.

  13. jets69

    Signalling has always been digital. Signals were referred to as either Off for go or On for stop. With points either Normal or Reverse. The levers are like on/off switches with the software being the locking under the frame all done mechanically. The only analogue bit would be adjusting the wire lengths, throw for points and the brightness of the oil lights used for the signals.

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