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Academics at the University of Bristol have developed a giant see-through computer designed to try and make it’s working more transparent. Emma Isle speaks to a few people that that were involved in the project. 

As Bill Gates once said “I think it’s fair to say that personal computers have become the most empowering tool we’ve ever created. They’re tools of communication, they’re tools of creativity, and they can be shaped by their user.”

Most of our generation have been lucky enough to grow up with them around to aid us, both at home and at school, but for many of us the way they function remains quite a mystery.

Enter the Big Hex machine. The University of Bristol Computer Science Department’s new tool to help students understand exactly how the inner workings of a computer function.

The Big Hex machine is essentially a giant 16-bit computer designed by staff and students to teach first year students the fundamentals of computer architecture. It measures over 8 square metres and is made of over 100 four-bit circuit boards, which should allow students to see exactly how a computer works from just a few basic components.

The machine is not the equivalent of your trusty Mac and its interface is very different but it is still powerful enough to run useful programs. It is designed to allow students to get creative with a traditionally difficult subject, and has a complete toolchain for students to write, build and execute their own software as part of their learning.

It is impossible to understand a computer by taking one apart!

Building the machine was no small task as well, as the Senior Creative Teaching Technologist Richard Grafton said “It’s a result of great collaboration between students and staff and a real testament to persistence, commitment and teamwork. Most importantly, it’s an achievement of thinking a little bit differently.”

[from L-R] Richard Grafton, Professor David May and Sam Russell, in front of the Big Hex Machine

It was built as a tool for the computer architecture unit, as Professor David May, who designed the architecture of the machine and programming language to accompany it, states “It is impossible to understand a computer by taking one apart!” referring to the taking apart of a computer hard drive that has long been a main staple of many Computer Science courses.

Local school children will also have access to the machine

The machine was designed to solve this problem, allowing students to be able to visualize the concepts that they are being taught in an easier manner.

In the Big Hex machine all the component parts are clearly visible, and every program run on the machine can clearly be followed, as the movement of information is also visible. This allows students to see their programs working, and hence better understand how an ordinary computer would do the same.

It allows students to visualise the basic principles of general purpose hardware being controlled by a stored program that is the fundamental underlay of all computer function.

Demystifies the magic to something that everyone can understand

You can even write your own programs to run on the machine. On the website for the machine there are pages with instructions detailing how you can do this, using the language X, which was written by Professor David May specifically for the big hex machine, and has a definition and instructions teaching users the nuances of this unique language.

It’s not just for Bristol students though, local school children will also have access to the machine to hopefully engage the next generation of computer scientists.

Sam Russell, a third year Computer Scientist that worked on both the prototype and the final machine, likened the designing and building of the machine to problems encountered by the original computer engineers.

He described the final machine as “an art work, an educational tool, a gigantic toy, a spark to reminisce the old days, but most of all, something that demystifies the magic to something that everyone can understand.”

So if you want to explore the inner workings of a computer or have a play with the machine you can find it in the Merchant Venturer’s Building, and who knows? You too could understand the magic.

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