Meet ERNIE 5: The tiny new microchip choosing Premium Bonds winners

It's gone from a huge, thundering piece of equipment combining a vacuum tube and transistor machine to a tiny computer chip approximately the size of a grain of rice.

The new incarnation of the Blackpool-based Premium Bonds number generator drew its first winning numbers on March 1.

Known as ERNIE - the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment - the machine selects winning numbers at random to award three million prizes every month worth in the region of £90 million.

And ERNIE 5 can now select its winners in just 12 minutes.

ERNIE 1 took 10 days to select its winning numbers. Credit: PA

That's quite the step up from ERNIE 4's nine-day process, and vastly improved from the 10 days it took ERNIE 1.

Compared to the minuscule new model, ERNIE 1 was also quite the behemoth at 3.5 metres long and 1,500kg heavy - described as being roughly the size of a van.

The first £1m jackpot winners from ERNIE 5 were a man from Somerset and a woman from Buckinghamshire.

As well as speeding up, as technology has advanced, so has the way in which ERNIE operates.

Its previous four generations all used thermal noise to produce its numbers at random, while ERNIE 5 is powered by quantum technology using light.

The very first ERNIE was invented back in 1956 by a code breaker at Bletchley Park, and Premium Bonds were launched in the government's budget that same year by Harold Macmillan.

Its first draw was the following year, in 1957.

Ernest Marples, the Postmaster General, pressing a button to start up ERNIE 1 for the very first Premium Savings Bonds draw in 1957. Credit: PA

It was intended to provide an alternative way for people to save.

Each month, ERNIE selects numbers which are matched to existing bonds to create the winners.

Prizes begin at just £25 - but in 1994, its first million-pound prize was awarded. All payouts, regardless of amount, are tax free.

There are fairly steep odds of winning that coveted £1m prize - in the region of 24,500 to one.

Though that's still a fair way better than the 45 million to one odds of winning the National Lottery.