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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
The past is the future at Bletchley Park
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Colossus, Tony Sale
Colossus filled entire rooms at Bletchley Park
It is easy to feel smug about modern life with its home computers, gadgets and fast net access.

But it does not take much to puncture such science-fictional notions. In fact, all it takes is a trip to Bletchley Park - hub of the Allies' code-cracking work during World War II.

It was here that pioneering work to build the first recognisably modern computers was carried out by a team of brilliant mathematicians and engineers.

The machines were needed to speed up the cracking of encrypted German communications intercepted by the Allies.

The importance of the code-cracking at Bletchley is well established and now its significance in the birth of the computer age is becoming apparent.

Many of those that worked on the early computers at Bletchley continued their work after WWII and influenced the design of the first commercial computers and even the development of the internet.

The BBC News website visited Bletchley to find out more about efforts to set up a National Museum of Computing that will be housed in, appropriately enough, Block H where Colossus No. 9 stood when it was being used.

Winston Churchill, AP
Churchill ordered Colossus to be broken up after WWII

"It's an obvious location for such an important museum," said Andy Clark who, along with Tony Sale and Kevin Murrell, has created a trust to get the museum established along with the help of the Bletchley Park Trust and the British Computer Society (BCS).

The Museum got an unofficial opening on 12 July during an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the BCS.

Mammoth task

Tony Sale has been the driving force behind the effort to re-build one of the 10 Colossus machines that the Allies used to read communications sent between both senior officers in the Wehrmacht and Nazi leaders.

"It was an open book to the German high command," said Tony Sale.

The Colossus rebuild started in 1993 and the work is not yet finished. The feat is all the more astonishing when you realise that, initially, all Mr Sale had to work from was a few black and white pictures of the machine.

Tony Sale (Stephen Fleming)
Information about how Colossus was built has been hard to come by
He had no working machines to look at because, on Churchill's orders, the Colossus machines were dismantled once the war was over. Many parts, mostly the 1500 valves, went back to telephone exchanges and the rest were broken into pieces "no bigger than a man's hand".

Mr Sale has tracked down the few living engineers who worked on the project and plumbed their expertise to guide the rebuilding effort.

He has also managed to get Block H, where most of the Colossus machines were located, declared a Grade II listed building because, he said: "It was Britain's first dedicated data centre."

In Block H, the Museum plans to let visitors see and use many of the "historically significant" machines it already has in storage.

"It won't just be computers in glass cases," said Mr Clark, "we're getting these machines working and doing things."

Without such a museum, Mr Clark and his fellow trustees fear that a vital part of Britain's history will go missing and unappreciated.

What is clear from a short visit to Bletchley and a stroll around the machines on show, many of which are too big to see over, is how much of a debt modern life owes to this period of intense invention.

The work on Colossus helped to develop some of the technical innovations that are still in use in computers decades later.

Also during WWII some of the code-cracking machines at Bletchley were in several locations in the UK and acted as a shared computational resource.

Computer network, BBC
Many modern computational ideas got their start at Bletchley
If one decoding station had machines standing idle, other code crackers could send over intercepted signals that their busy machines could not handle in time, to ensure they were was read.

This is extraordinarily reminiscent of the today's networks, which link all manner of computers to do useful work for us.

It was the time when machines began to augment and outstrip the computational capacities of even the brightest people in the land, a time when the word "computer" really began to mean a machine rather than a person.

It is not too romantic to suggest that all we have done in the intervening years is shrink the machines and speed up the networks - the basic principles were put in place at the end of WWII. In this case a visit to the past means a far greater appreciation of our future.

UK computer history gets new home
11 Jul 07 |  Technology
Enigma project cracks second code
15 Mar 06 |  Technology
Return of Colossus marks D-Day
01 Jun 04 |  Technology
Codebreaker machine gets new home
21 Aug 05 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts
Cracking codes at Bletchley
06 Sep 06 |  Breakfast
Honour for wartime codebreakers
30 Nov 04 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts

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