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Debate over whether Tasmanian golf museum is home to the world’s oldest electrical computer

POSTED ON December 30, 2018 @ 11:43 pm

In the small town of Bothwell, on Tasmania’s central plateau, there’s an indoor golf game being hailed the oldest electrical computer in the world.

The Spotlight Golf Machine was built in England in 1936, and is currently exhibited in the Australasian Golf Museum at Bothwell.

Surrounded by old fashioned clubs, balls and memorabilia from famous golfers, Spotlight stands out in the small museum.

It is an arcade-style golf simulation game with a display unit that looks like a grandfather clock.

A player hits a ball attached to a string connected to the machine, but it is what happens next that has computer historians excited.

The machine measures the direction, elevation, distance and spin of each shot using a variety of early computing technologies.

Spotlight then plots the virtual finishing point of the ball on a golf hole painted onto a canvas scroll inside the display unit.

It was touted as allowing golfers to play courses like St Andrews and Muirfield in the comfort of their own homes.

“Every hit is registered for lie and position and you play every club in the bag,” read an ad that ran in the Times in 1936.

Foundation professor of computer science at the University of Tasmania Arthur Sale said the game was a real computer with just eight bits of memory.

“The modern computer consists of five main components — the input, the output, the memory, instructions and coding. On the Spotlight Golf Machine, all these components are present,” Professor Sale said.

Eight bits of memory equals one byte. One gigabyte (1GB) is approximately 1 billion times the memory of the Spotlight Golf Machine.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a computer as “an apparatus for performing mathematical computations electronically according to a series of stored instructions called a program”.

“Most people think that computers need to work out numbers, but they don’t,” Professor Sale said.

“They basically need to work out logical relationships … and that’s what the Spotlight Golf Machine does.”

Spotlight’s construction in 1936 was well before the creation of the first programmable electrical machines around 1941.

However, the Golf Museum’s claim that Spotlight is the world’s oldest computer is disputed.

Dr Doron Swade is a computer historian and mentor to the Bletchley Park Museum of Computing in England.

He said Spotlight was “an ingenious machine” unlike applications of the technology at the time, but it is not a computer.

“The Spotlight Golf Machine is not a digital electronic general purpose computer as understood in modern usage,” he said.

“Even if it was by some stretch called a computer, there are machines from the 19th Century, and others that predate it in the 20th Century, that perform sophisticated mathematical computations,” he said.

However, Dr Swade agreed the machine was special.

“It is historically significant because of the application of technology to leisure activity and entertainment, in this case golf, through simulation,” he said.

“Trying to situate it as a seminal machine in the history of the digital electronic computer deprives it of its major significance — a possibly unique example of anticipating the major economic and technological phenomenon that is interactive gaming, and the application of computer-based technologies to leisure and entertainment.”

There are only a handful of Spotlight Golf Machines still in existence — one is on display at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland.

Greg Ramsay from the Australasian Golf Museum believes the one at Bothwell is the only one with the majority of its original parts.

“The sad thing for us is that we’d love to see it working again but the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, who are our museum’s owners, they have deemed it to be too historically significant to actually be tampered with,” he said.

The golf museum has recently purchased another Spotlight Machine from New Zealand in the hope it can be restored to working order.

“That’s what we’d like to do — to actually get one working again,” Mr Ramsay said.

He said even if there is not consensus about Spotlight being a computer, it still holds a unique place in history.

“To avoid debate it might be easier to call it the world’s first computer game,” he said.

That would mean Space Invaders and Minecraft have their origins in golf.

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