Touring the National Museum of Computing, Bletchley, England

Between lectures, presentation, coursework assignments and photography, it’s been impossible to keep up with blogging. This post has been due since November but I just couldn’t find the put it all together for you, but I’m here now.

Computers and information technology have become an integral part of our lives in the digital age. Just about everything we do, have or enjoy has been defined and made possible by computers, but the history of these powerful resources, their influence on politics, and the rest of the world hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. Even more understated is the importance and power of intellectual research endeavours and the fundamental difference the glasses-wearing, library-loving, coffee-guzzling academics contribute to historical events.

The National Museum of Computing tells this vivid story by collecting, restoring, and displaying historic computer systems. Located in Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (two hours from the University of Reading Whiteknights Campus) the National Museum of Computing opened in 2007 and hosts a variety of old technologies, from arm-size satellite phones to memory discs the size of a coffee table.

The Colossus is the first programmable computer. This was intriguing primarily because it looks nothing like the computers we have today, lacking a screen and keyboard. It was used to help decipher encrypted radio messages from the Germans during World War II. It was interesting to realise that the war wasn’t just won by brute-force and violence alone, hardworking researchers contributed by developing an information system to save lives and eventually bring an end to Hitler’s war.

For insight on this, you should see The Imitation Game, a brilliant movie detailing how the British intelligence agency recruited  Cambridge University mathematician and logician Alan Turing to crack Nazi codes which were thought to be unbreakable. If you haven’t, you can watch the trailer here.

I love this movie so you can imagine how awestruck I was just to be in the same room as the Turing-Welchman Bombe, the one that that changed the history of the world. The Bombe is a massive and incredibly complex device covered with what seems like hundreds of knobs, used by cryptologists to decipher secret German messages I was so glad cameras were allowed and I couldn’t stop shooting. The lighting in the museum was limited so I didn’t come out eith the best shots or angles.

The Lorenz machines which the German Army used to encrypt messages during World War II were also in display. So in my head, I could see German soldiers stabbing away at these keys and British academics rubbing thier chins and waiting fot the Bombe to come through. The feeling of somehow being part of that was immense.

I also got to see the WITCH! The Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell (WITCH) is the world’s oldest working digital computer! I could tell you all about it, but i think it will be more engaging to just watch this video.

The museum tour was a lot like walking through a time capsule and watching technology evolve right before our eyes. We got to compare a vintage telephone with our touchscreen smartphones, and it was amazing how such a bulky rudimentary device has evolved to become small, sleek, versatile, and infinitely faster.

We got to experience first-hand the challenges associated with programming in the 1980s using the first home computer, 8-bit BBC Micro. These computers, although more familiar than the Bombe or Colossus, were unbelievably slow and did not have the backspace button; consequently, if you made a mistake you had to start over.

Afterwards, we used current laptops to toy with the Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950. The Turing test evaluates a machine’s ability to show intelligence comparable to that of a human being and is the basis of Artificial Intelligence (AI) today. It was heartbreaking to learn that Alan went to prison for being gay despite his contribution to his country and the world with his work in AI. I don’t see how being gay is a punishable offence but we will have this conversation in another blog post.

Our last stop was the ‘Women in Computing’ gallery, which became an easy favourite. It recognized women’s contributions in the male-dominated field of information technology. Women were among the first programmers in history and made note-worthy contributions to this field, with Ada Lovelace who designed the first algorithm to be run by a computer. As a woman in tech, this gallery was deeply motivating and reassuring of the fact that I have a place here, perhaps not in a museum but I too can make a difference through research and academia.

Want more? Watch a tour below

Summarily, it was a fascinating experience. If you are into computers and digital technology, I absolutely recommend you pay this museum a vist. Seeing what over 50 years of innovation in information technology looks like made me realise that current computing technology will be considered obsolete in a few decades and the coming generations will wonder how we put up with them.
I was so inspired, it’s the first time I’ve had the desire to live forever just so I can see what wonders the great minds of this world will come up with, and how these advancement services will shape our lives. It was a strong reminder that there are no superheroes just ordinary, hardworking people trying to make a difference in the work.

Have you been to the National Museum of Computing? What was your favourite find?
Let me know in the comments!

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