Sunday, 29 January 2012

Our debt to the past...

We had a visit to Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing (in Block H) during the week and were amazed by the speed at which computing had changed over the years. We were humbled by the early pioneer's work too, without which none of what we're all about would be possible. We had heard of Bletchley because of Alan Turing and the Enigma code breaking during the 2nd World War - that's in a separate museum featuring war related efforts, but the equivalent pioneers of early digital computing, Tommy Flowers and Max Newman, did equally astounding work with Colossus, the first electronic computer, to break the German Lorenz cypher. This was a more complex code than Enigma and would have been impossible to decode by hand.

Front and back views of Colossus

The first Colossus machine used 1800 valves (vacuum tubes) and the Mark II had 2400. Received wisdom at the time was that a machine with so many valves could not be reliable but Flowers countered this by pointing out that valves were used reliably (in the telephone system) simply because the equipment was never switched off. Even now, one of the valves in the Bletchley Colossus is over 40 years old and to minimise the thermal effects of switching the power the machine is powered up and down using a rheostat to change the voltage gradually.

Here's a summary of the different code breaking machines.

If you're into gadgetry from mechanical calculators to Cray super-computers, from valve-based data processing systems to Domesday Reloaded with its state-of-the art touch-table, they are here in working order. And they really do want accessions that represent key points in the transitions of computing - even technical manuals. Do your parents have any staches of stuff in their lofts? Are you second or third generation computing/IT ites? Does your company have the cupboard full of 'things' in the basement?

What business computers looked like 40 years ago

We were there donating some items and we got a comprehensive tour by an ex MOD rocket scientist (really) volunteer. They do corporate events, school visits etc. Why not have a works outing? It's quite accessible from London (UK) as Bletchley Station is about 500 yds from the Park. There's the historic house with cafe, the War Museum, a Toy Museum, the Projected Picture (ie cinema) Trust and American memorial planting in the grounds. Could suit a family outing where you all split and do your own thing to meet for refreshments? Here's what to see at Bletchley.

A bit different from our usual blog but too good to miss. Spread the word!