Back in November I had the privilege to spend two days at Bletchley Park, the home of the legendary WWII code breakers and the National Museum of Computing, along with a number of the UK-based Microsoft MVPs. It’s a place that I’ve personally wanted to visit for a number of years because my grandfather’s wartime role was at a Wireless Intercept ‘Y Station’ that was listening in on Axis communications to be decrypted by the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park (the forerunner to GCHQ).
The two days were filled with presentations from Microsoft staff and MVPs in the ballroom, a team code breaking exercise around the grounds and huts, and a tour of the Museum. The modern content in the presentations was very interesting, but it was the history on display that was the star of the show. This is where many significant developments took place in the early days of computing, as well as work that has been credited with shortening the war and contributing greatly to Allied victory. The history is alive at Bletchley Park and there was a palpable energy in Hut 8, where Alan Turing and his team worked on the German naval Enigma codes.
The after dinner speaker at the end of day 1 was the Director of the National Museum of Computing, Dr David Hartley. He gave an excellent brief history of the pioneering computing done at Bletchley and across the UK, including Tommy Flowers‘ work and the Harwell Dekatron (aka WITCH); the oldest working stored-program computer in the world, which was recently restored to working order.
I have to say that visiting the National Museum of Computing with a group of people who were equally interested in computing history was a real pleasure. It’s quite fantastic seeing the replica Colossus and Bombe machines, and the restored Dekatron, not only in the flesh, but in action! As well as these and many other large machines on display, the museum has an excellent selection of microcomputers (including a room of BBC Model B machines that can be used), peripherals, mobiles, software, books and magazines. I found some books that I used to own and some copies of the Let’s Compute magazine that I had a subscription to as a boy. If you’ve been around computers for a long time, then you’re going to find a bunch of things that bring back memories you’d forgotten you had. It’s awesome. 🙂
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Milton Keynes, I urge you to visit, enjoy and support this fascinating and important site. The Museum isn’t fully open every day, so check the website when you plan your visit: www.tnmoc.org & www.bletchleypark.org.uk. You should take a guided tour of the museum and then browse in your own time – the staff are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really add to the experience.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the wartime work carried out at Bletchley Park, I can highly recommend Sinclair McKay’s “The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There”, which is available in paperback and on Kindle. I’m currently reading the follow-up to that book on my Kindle: “The Secret Listeners: How the Wartime Y Service Intercepted the Secret German Codes for Bletchley Park“