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