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1951 manual to the first computer game sells for $4,200


The Ferranti Nimrod Computer Manual from 1951 (pic supplied by Any Amount of Books)

A copy of the manual for the first computer game has been sold for £2,500 (around $4,200) by Any Amount of Books in London via AbeBooks. The Ferranti Nimrod Digital Computer Manual is a key piece of technology and gaming history. The game in question is a long way from Minecraft and Angry Birds – it’s a match-stick game called Nim that was played in the French movie L’Année Derniere a Marienbad and is said to have originated in China. Here’s a link to a game.

The computer was built to play the game alone. The manual was used at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the cover offers a little early branding with the words ‘Faster than Thought’.

To quote the manual:

 The game is for two players, being played nowadays with matches. At the beginning of the game one of the players arranges the matches in any number of heaps in any way he chooses. The players then move alternatively taking any number of matches from any one heap but at least one match must always be taken. In the normal simple game the player who succeeds in taking the last few matches wins but in the reverse simple game the player who takes the last match or matches loses.

At the exhibition the public could play against the machine. The famous Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing beat it. At the conclusion of each game, the machine flashed up the message ‘Computer Wins’ or ‘Computer Loses.’ It’s interesting to hear that the manual referred to ‘memory’ as ‘storage’.

Any Amount of Books posted about the manual at its excellent Jot 101 blog – I love the picture of the two dancers from the Windmill Girls playing against the computer.

L’Année dernière à Marienbad is a cult 1961 film known for its hard-to-understand narrative. Two men play the match game as the movie explores the relationship between them and a woman through flashbacks. Ferranti was an electrical engineering firm that began in the Victorian era but went bankrupt in 1993. The best bibliography of computer literature is The Origins of Cyberspace by Diana Hook and Jeremy Norman but it’s not cheap.

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Richard Davies

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