Geek Nirvana

On May 1st, I tagged along on a “Staff Away Day” with faculty from the Canterbury and Medway branches of the University of Kent.  Our destination was the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.  Bletchley Park has mythical status amongst computing geeks.  It was the site of the British code breaking efforts during WWII — efforts that shortened the war by at least two years by many estimates, and helped usher in the era of electronic computing.  Alan Turing, widely considered the father of computer science, was central to these efforts.  He devised means for analyzing and deciphering encrypted transmissions, and designed some of the code-breaking hardware used at Bletchley Park.  The work done there was so secret that the folks involved weren’t adequately recognized until quite recently.  The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency, just declassified two of Turing’s WWII-era papers earlier this year!

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4254

We spent most of our visit going through the National Museum of Computing’s collection.  The museum cares for some of the oldest computing hardware in the United Kingdom, including the recently rebuilt Colossus, a computing machine built to guess at Enigma encryption settings given hints about the contents of an encrypted message.  The Brits consider this the first electronic computer, though purists will object that it is not a general purpose, stored program computer.  (It was built to solve a single problem, and could not be reprogrammed short of rewiring it.)

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4287

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4294 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4288

Here are some assorted shots of vintage hardware.  (Note that they’re not links to larger versions.  I’m trying out a new blogging tool and a different workflow.)

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4311 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4320 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4455 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4493

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4368 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4394 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4440

The largest hard disk platter I’ve ever seen (4MB per side):

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4483 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4489 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4488

After several hours of peeking and poking at fabulous vintage computers and calculators, we trekked down to see “the mansion” and the huts (including the one in which Turing worked), and spent a few minutes in the Turing exhibition.

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4525 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4528 MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4556

They had some of Turing’s papers and personal effects on display.  The museum also houses a letter of apology from the British government.  Turing was convicted of homosexual acts in 1952 and chose chemical castration over prison.  He killed himself two years later, just short of his 42nd birthday.  After a successful petition in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote an apology for the way in which Turing was treated.

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4560

MAS 2012 05 01 IMG 4567

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2 Responses to Geek Nirvana

  1. And, by Moore’s Law, everything you saw at BP had the effective computing power of….

  2. boazrichards says:

    I was thinking about that as I saw folks snapping pictures with their smartphones. I wondered if it was a fitting tribute to the work done there, or if we were offending the old hardware by wasting our nearly infinite cycles on Instagram and Facebook.

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