diamond geezer

 Monday, December 13, 2010

Britain boasts several museums devoted to the history of a single everyday object. You'll be glad to hear, then, that there's a museum devoted to possibly the most important everyday object of modern times. A device which didn't exist 70 years ago, but which now pervades almost everything we do. Its story is told in the National Museum of Computing, which is based in the very building where the world's very first digital programmable computer was operated. Block H, Bletchley Park.

The invention of the computer was ultimately Adolf Hitler's fault. British forces needed to crack the extremely complex code used by top level German officers, and only an electronic solution would do. The first computer was designed by Tommy Flowers, an engineer at the GPO Research Centre in Dollis Hill, and installed at Bletchley Park over Christmas 1943. It was called Colossus, and consisted of 1500 electronic valves linked together by switchable circuits. Information was fed in via paper tape running at 30mph, and swift operation meant that German operational plans could now be decoded in hours rather than weeks. Introduced in 1944, Colossus helped to ensure that Britain was usually one step ahead of Germany for the rest of the war.

Ten Colossus machines were built, but all were eventually dismantled to maintain secrecy. Volunteers have since managed to recreate this pioneering computer using the memories of retired engineers, a scant few circuit diagrams and eight black and white photographs. A fully functioning replica now exists on the original site, complete with whirring tapes and flashing red lights, overseen by dedicated men with soldering irons. It doesn't do anything 'useful' any more, but it stirs the heart merely by existing. So long as the money (and a supply of electronic valves) holds out, Colossus's legacy should last well into the 21st century.

Explore the remaining rooms at the Museum of Computing, from one end of the wartime huts to the other, and you'll uncover a motley collection of the outstanding and the once-ordinary. Two rooms are given over to large systems and mainframes, of the kind that used to half-fill 70s offices or keep air traffic control operational. Another houses punched-card systems (sigh, I wrote my first computer program on punched cards), while another showcases early electronic calculators (ooh, there's my Sinclair President, and my Casio fx-thingy). There's also a room being set up as a classroom circa 1984 - still work in progress, and made trickier because the specialised hardware and videodiscs needed to run the BBC Domesday Project are already decaying.

All around the museum you'll spot volunteers keeping the place ticking over. For many this means poking around in the back of various bits of hardware, trying to restore them to working order. There are men on their knees with screwdrivers, beardyblokes in sysadmin t-shirts tweaking circuit boards, and lank-haired teenagers busy rescuing computers which are older than they are. If you have a clich├ęd view of what IT nerds look like, then a visit here may not alter your perception. These miracle workers should, however, earn your unfailing respect.

Personal computer gallery @ the National Museum of Computing

A favourite room is the personal computer gallery, which celebrates that glorious decade when Atari, Acorn, Amstrad etc ruled the home market. Up at one end are a Commodore PET, an original Apple and a Dragon 32, along with several other vintage models with very British brand names. Even better, the museum prides itself on having as many systems as possible up and operational. Take a seat for a nostalgic game of Frogger, or perhaps Frak on the good old BBC Micro, or even a quick round of Lemmings. Younger visitors may look somewhat baffled at first, then increasingly intrigued, whereas children of the 1980s need no invitation to get stuck in and show off long-lost prowess. If you're lucky even the Sinclair ZX81 might be loaded up and ready to play, but more likely its cassette-loading interface will have failed leaving only a few floundering lines of BASIC on the screen.

If computers have never intrigued you, don't come. If you're only interested in Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, stay away. But if you ever wrote a program that ended "20 GOTO 10", or if there's a floppy-powered PC mothballed in your spare room, then you'd no doubt enjoy a nostalgic hands-on trip. The museum's open on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons only, should you want to time your visit to Bletchley Park appropriately. And who knows, you might even consider becoming one of the volunteers preserving our digital past for the benefit of an obsolete future.

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