Retrotechtacular: ERNIE


Wherever you may live in the world, who do you wish to smile upon you and deliver good fortune? You may be surprised to discover that for a significant number of Brits this role is taken by someone called [Ernie].

What, [Jim Henson]’s Ernie from Sesame Street‘s famous duo Bert and Ernie? Sadly not, because the owner of a [Rubber Duckie] can’t offer you the chance of a million quid every month. Instead, [Ernie] is a computer that has been anthropomorphised in the national imagination. More properly referred to as E.R.N.I.E, for Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, he is the machine that picks the winning bond numbers for the Premium Bonds, a lottery investment scheme  run by the British Government.

Brits have been able to buy £1 bonds, up to 50,000 of them today, since the 1950s, and every month they are entered into a drawing from which ERNIE picks the winners. The top two prizes are a million pounds, but for most bond holders the best they can hope for is the occasional £25 cheque. Premium Bonds are often bought for young children so a lot of Brits will have a few, often completely forgotten. Prizes never expire, so if you are the holder of old bonds you should consider asking National Savings and Investments whether anything is owed to you.

The Great Grandfather of Premium Bond Drawings

The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The original 1957 ERNIE, now in the collection of the Science Museum, London. Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current ERNIE is the fourth-generation model, but our attention today is on its 1950s ancestor. In a way it’s the most interesting of the machines because it has an unusual pedigree, being a creation of the Post Office Research Station, at Dollis Hill, London. As such it came from the lab of the Colossus engineer [Tommy Flowers], and is described as being a descendant of the now-famous but then still top-secret first digital computer used by the World War Two codebreakers. It’s thus a fascinating study for the student of computer history as well as for its role in British postwar social history, because it represents the only glimpse (had they known it at the time) that the British public had of the technology that had helped them so much a decade earlier.

A significant effort was made to ensure that the draw was truly random, and the solution employed by [Flowers] and his team was thoroughly tested before each draw. The thermionic noise generated across a neon tube was sampled, and this random voltage delivered the truly random numbers used to generate the winning bond numbers. The machine’s construction is extremely reminiscent of its wartime predecessor, however it is as well to bear in mind that it owes this to the standard racking and paint used in British telephone exchanges of the day. Gone though are the octal tubes, and in their place are their more familiar miniature successors.

We have two films for you showing this incarnation of ERNIE in action. The first is a National Savings promotional film which explains ERNIE’s purpose, while the second shows us the Minister of the time starting the first draw. Believe it or not, this was a cause of major national excitement at the time.