Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Monday, 5 May 2008

A Grand Day Out

A notice that somehow seems to fit perfectly with the subject matter we were looking at yesterday.

Yesterday threatened to be typical Bank Holiday Weekend weather, so NAH and I decided we'd visit the National Codes Centre at Bletchley Park. We've always enjoyed exploring industrial archaeology and modern history, so the previously top secret home of code breaking during World War II has long been on our list of things to do. I knew that a lot of the site would be a collection of depressing looking huts from this period and was worried that the place would not live up to my romanticised world of spies and espionage fueled by films and books such as Enigma. I needn't have worried, this has got to be one of the best museums I've ever visited.

NAH is currently reading a book about Colussus, the world's first ever electronic computer that was built specifically to break Lorenz, the German High Command code. A code that has 15 million million million possible combinations. Volunteers have spent the last 15 years rebuilding a replica of this machine. Quite a tricky task as the government ordered all details to be destroyed after the war, so they had just 8 photographs and a few plans (all illegally saved) plus the memories of surviving people who'd worked on the original Mark I and II computers to go on. Naturally this had to be our first port of call after lunch. The room housing the computer was very warm due to the hundreds of valves used, so I dread to think what it must have been like working round the clock on this machine during a heatwave.

We found the building also houses the fledgling National Museum of Computing - not part of Bletchley Park per se, but a welcome addition. There comes a certain moment in one's life when stuff you're familiar with becomes the subject matter for a museum and yesterday was one of those days. The 'calculator' display housed a few computating machines another visitor had used in her job (probably in a finance department somewhere?) and I spotted an Apple Newton too. This was one of the early PDAs with handwriting recognition and I'd used one to gather data on streams and habitats of The New Forest in 1993. I believe this was one of the first times Newton's were used in this country. Sadly it was one of Apple's developments that didn't get very far.

We then had a quick tour round the computer room in the company of an enthusiastic volunteer. There were all kinds of early mainframes and I was surprised to find myself in front of a similar computer to the one I'd used in my first job as a Systems Analyst. In the early 1980s I worked at National Savings in Durham and somehow managed to 'pass' a computer aptitude test (I'm convinced they got my result mixed up with someone elses) and was set to work in the project team computerising the entire savings certificates day to day operations from scratch. It was a really weird feeling to see this computer again - I'd forgotten just how large mainframes were in those days. They took up entire huge rooms and had less computing power than the PC you're using to read this.

Next was a talk in Bletchley Manor about the development of Colussus and code breaking. Unfortunately the overhead projector broke down at the start of this talk, so the speaker had to improvise, but it was still fascinating. My brain is always in danger of going into meltdown when the codebreaking methods are described, but the speaker just managed to keep the right side of preventing this. These talks are every afternoon at 2pm at weekends and there's an alternating programme of 2 talks on a Saturday and a different 2 on Sunday. We then joined one of the half hourly guided tours round the complex - taking about an hour and a half. We'd seen a number of 'gentlemen of a military bearing' doing these earlier and our guide was no exception. Whilst it was obvious he'd worked in this kind of establishment at some point, he was great at telling us the human stories behind what went on at Bletchley Park. He had a wealth of 'oral history' to draw on that's been painstakingly gathered from visitors who worked there during the war and afterwards and this what turned all those dreary looking huts into such a fascinating tour.

We hardly had any time to visit the artefacts part of the museum, but I just had to show you part of the detail of Alan Turing's statue, one of the key players in Bletchley Park's story. I love the use of slate and stone in gardens and I thought the choice of slate for this statue was inspired. It conveyed the darkness of Alan Turing's personality plus the complexity of the man and his work. I can tell you that the interpretation of the displays in the museum I saw are extremely good, but they were taken to a much higher level by the presence of lots of volunteer 'room stewards' who again had a wealth of stories to tell us. For example I know from the Enigma display material that the example I was looking at was one of the simpler machines, but then the volunteer close by told us it's one of only nine left in the world and that GCHQ didn't quite know what they were passing onto the museum when they donated it.

We didn't have time to look around the mansion house at all, nor have a look at the Museum of Cinema Technology (another partner museum on the site), nor much of anything in any depth apart from Colussus. Therefore, it's great that our £10 entrance fee (£22.50 for a family ticket) allows us to go back as many times as we like over the next year. Children get given a quiz to do, which then goes into a prize draw at the end of their visit - a great idea as the children I saw were very keen to get all the answers to the questions on their quiz sheets! Children also got a portion of punched paper tape to take home - if they log onto this site, they can go to the 'Nerds and Anoraks' corner to find out what their piece of tape actually says. The site was developed by Tony Sale, the originator and first curator of the museum and has a wealth of material to explore online.

If you are still wondering where do pigeons fit into all of this - well, they were used during WWII to carry messages from the battlefield back to Bletchley Park. Some were even parachuted into the battlezone! NAH and I were very surprised to hear this, but discussing it over a cup of tea later in the afternoon, we realised they would have some distinct advantages over the morse code and teleprinter technologies we'd been looking at the rest of the time. Can you think what they might be?

9 comments:

  1. I haven't been to the Bham Art Galleries since I was a child I think, went to school in Edgbaston for a while - seems like it might be best to wait until they have finished rebuilding the place before visiting, large areas are closed.

    I see you are a dinosaur too, both my OH and I were assembler programmers back in the day, him from the late 1970s onward, me from about 1981 - we used to have to count how many bytes the code we had written took up, as memory was so restricted. He was one of the programmers on the first ATM systems (Barclays) we had I did a stint with ICL , realised it wasn't where the future was and quickly upgraded my skills to IBM. I used to use an octal card punch as a door stop til my son broke his toe on it! OH is still developing applications/writing code in assembler for operating system level products on IBM mainframes.

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  2. What a grand day out! Some of the pigeons used for messenger services were awarded animal Victoria crosses, reflecting the value they had. Probably better in pies than computers too : )

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  3. That's the sort of place that I'd enjoy! I must add it to my list. xx

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  4. sounds like so much fun. all i did was see a movie :-)

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  5. Heh, my father was one of the last programmers to learn BASIC when he did his programmer training (I was ten at the time) and my hubby used punch cards to program computers at his school. I don't know if this makes _me_ a dinosaur (why, my second computer was an Apple Classic), but I'm definately surrounded by them...

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  6. So interesting, VP! My eyes normally glaze over when someone starts talking about computers, but I perked up when I saw Bletchley Park. This past winter I read a lot of mysteries, including a couple by David Baldacci. One of his novels, now I can't remember which one, revolves around code breaking, and I remember the name Alan Turing, although he didn't "appear" in the novel. I'll try to remember the title; you might enjoy it.

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  7. Zoe - we must have started our computing careers at the same time. The first computer I worked on was an ICL 2900. As a systems analyst/BA I've luckily not been so technologically dependent, but have worked on pretty much every platform going at some time or the other

    Threadspider - that's what the guide told us too. His description of how the pigeons got parachuted in had us in stitches!

    Flighty - you won't be disappointed. Oh and there's a harrier jump jet on display there too :)

    BMF - It was great fun - though the movies were good too

    Rosengeranium - so am I!

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  8. that sign made me burst out laughing.

    Another good one is in the village just after you turn out of Great Dixter to go home. Basically you cross back into Kent for a minute, and it says "Welcome to Kent, Garden of England." and then underneath "Kebab, Chicken, Burgers, Next layby"

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  9. Emma - welcome back! Glad you liked the sign. Now I have another reason to visit Great Dixter, so I can add to my silly sign collection as well as seeing the gardens :)

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