The National Museum of Computing

Last week I attended a training course arrange by OCR for schools taking part in the pilot of their GCSE Computing course. Apparently this course is now just a couple of weeks from becoming a “real” course, and I think it looks great. I hope the two classes of students who will be studying it with me next year also agree!

The course was held at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, which was a nice touch, since the “Colossus” machine built here is widely regarded as the first electronic computing device in the world.

I thought I’d share my feelings about the museum which was fascinating and moving, but also left me a bit disappointed.

Arrival at the Museum is rather odd. Bletchley Park’s buildings still stand where they did during the war, but now they are surrounded by a housing estate and other general urban sprawl. My SatNav didn’t get me to any kind of main entrance, just a random side street within the local housing estate. When I found the entrance, I wasn’t greeted with a large manor house (which is apparently there somewhere!) but instead something that looked like an abandoned industrial area with a mix of overgrown vegetation climbing up the fences, crumbling old buildings and faded signs.

You can easily park outside “Block H” which is the series of huts that house the museum. Block H is where the original Colossus was constructed, and is where the replica sits (and works) today.

The National Museum of Computing

Building isn't pretty, but it is bomb-proof.

Apparently these are the original buildings from the war, which were put up rapidly with the only requirement being that they could withstand bombing.

I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to look around the museum before and after the OCR training. A few friendly (and stereotypically bearded) volunteers are on hand to make sure you know where to go, but you can’t really get lost because the huts are quite small.

I first looked at the main exhibit which is a long room with a rack of radio receivers (actually picking up modern-day teleprompter signals from Germany, albeit about the weather rather than war) and working replicas of “TUNNY” and Heath Robinson machines.

Made out of bits of telephone exchange

Around the corner in the next room is a working Colossus machine, which looks amazing with 2500+ valves and lots of other telephone exchange electrical switching stuff. It was running when I was there, apparently busily decrypting old war codes. When keys are found, they are output to paper via an electro-mechanical typewriter!

Working replica of the original Colossus

The construction of this replica was led by Tony Sale, who to my amazement was happily pottering around the site, and also giving a talk to a school group visiting from Sheffield (apparently a Maths class from an all-girls school).

Tony Sale explains to a group of school-children how encrypted German messages were intercepted and decoded

This part of the museum was incredibly interesting and moving, but felt (and smelt!) a bit like someone’s home workshop or shed! Perhaps that is the look they are going for, but I think it is more likely that they don’t have the money or other resources to do these machines justice and put them in the huge dramatically-lit glass cabinets on monolithic plinths that they should be sitting in.

Other parts of the museum do have a more modern museum feel to them (inside at least, the huts are still just as tatty on the outside!). I thought the 1980s ICT classroom (complete with a dozen or so BBC Micros) was a great idea, and apparently visiting schools can have lessons on programming here (whatever happened to those!).

I was particularly enthusiastic about the 80s retro computer gaming room (because it brought back so many happy memories) which housed a range of 80s computers that almost certainly would have spent 98% of their time playing video games, from the ZX Spectrum (which I had) to the Amiga and Atari ST (which I was always envious of). Everything was fully working and connected to peripherals such as joysticks and cassette-players. The games were already loaded, but for the real experience I think you should be made to wait 20 minutes while the computer screeches at you.

80s retro gaming! (I wonder what these girls are thinking...)

Overall the museum seems quite small and “under construction” which is a real shame because it certainly felt like there was/is huge potential. The 80s gaming room and one or two other similar exhibits certainly are moving in a good direction. We were welcomed to the museum officially by Chris Monk of the TNMOC, who explained that there are plans to introduce more interactive and kinaesthetic exhibits that make the history of computing more relevant to young people today (ie. how did we end up with smartphones and facebook). If I lived more locally I think I might even volunteer to help with these exciting projects myself!

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