The National Museum of Computing @ Bletchley Park

Yesterday I was over at the complex of wartime concrete buildings and wooden huts that make up Bletchley Park, the site famous for the code-breaking that took place during the Second World War. The main purpose for my visit was to investigate Block H, which houses the National Museum of Computing, but more on that in a moment.

The facilities at Bletchley Park are not, as you might have imagined, centered around the imposing mansion that forms the centrepiece of the site (and which these days spends most of its time being used as a conference and wedding reception venue) – your visit actually starts at Block B where you’ll find the newly restored ‘Turing Bombe‘ machine used in early attempts to crack the coded messages produced by the Nazi’s ‘Enigma‘ machine. Close by this exhibit is a remarkable statue of the Bombe’s designer – mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, intricately carved by artist Stephen Kettle. Elsewhere in the building is a large collection of various types of Enigma machine, an impressive recreation of a World War II German Signals Group bunker and other static displays.

My visit today, however, focused on Block H at the back of the site which houses the National Museum of Computing. Dominating this complex of huts is the Colossus Rebuild, dedicated to what was the world’s first true computing device and played its part in helping to decrypt Enigma codes alongside its partner machine known as the Tunny. Both of these devices were assembled from the telecommunications equipment of the time, and after they had served their purpose they were dismantled for use as spares. When enthusiasts were looking to reconstruct the machines in their original locations on the site in the 1990s, few blueprints remained – in fact they had to employ the services of the original builder of the Colossus, Tommy Flowers, to help them piece it all back together. For anyone interested in looking at the Colossus in greater depth, I can recommend a visit online to where you’ll find a wealth of interesting information.

Elsewhere in the building you’ll find a mainframe hall, dedicated to the workhorse of payroll and financial systems the world over until the advent of powerful personal computers. Taking pride of place is an ICL Series 29 mainframe alongside a set of DRS20 dumb terminals and a whole bank of 80MB hard disk drives – each the size of a small fridge! Wander a little further down the narrow corridors and you’ll find the personal computing section where there are lots of working models of popular computers from the 80s onwards – you can try your hand at programming on a BBC Acorn computer, or even check out the gaming experience you’d have had on a Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum or one of Lord Sugar’s machines. Look hard enough and you’ll even find several early examples of Apples – just keep your eyes open for small plain beige boxes rather than the slick aluminium devices that they produce today…

I have to say that the staff who were on hand during my visit couldn’t have been more knowledgeable or friendly – they have a real desire here to teach people, young and old, about the history of computing. In fact I came across some of the volunteers patiently recreating the kind of computer lab that you would have seen in a British school of the 1980s, complete with banks of BBC Acorn computers. I should also say that the Museum is run on a shoe-string budget and relies on donations to keep going – cash from visitors, donations of equipment from well-wishers and the time of volunteers (most of whom are retired engineers) so if you decide to pay them a visit do give generously. After all, the National Museum of Computing represents our only comprehensive historical record of the UK’s computing past and it deserves to be maintained.

A final note on ticket prices – the full adult charge for entry to Bletchley Park is £12, however this provides you with a season ticket allowing you to return as often as you like throughout the next twelve months. You’ll definitely need several visits to get through all of the attractions on site because in addition to Blocks B and H which I’ve told you about, there are permanent wartime exhibits in Hut 8 (Alan Turing’s workplace when he was stationed here), a display of vintage vehicles in the Bletchley Park Garage, the Churchill Collection, the 1940s era Enigma Cinema which shows World War II showreels, the Diplomatic Wireless Service displays in Hut 1, a Model Railway and more besides!

One of the disused buildings on the site

I highly recommend a visit – it’s only about 45 minutes by train out of Euston to Bletchley station which is a short walk away from the site, and it’s nice to get out into the countryside from time to time…