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950511 Bletchley

COMPUTING

Colossal contribution to the war effort


Chris Long on a computer museum in the old home of the Colossus machine (and of GCHQ)

BLETCHLEY PARK is nearly seven acres of mostly single storey buildings, 90 per cent of them with their windows bricked up. Its surreal quality is enhanced when, as you turn a corner on its perimeter road, you find an American tank bearing down on you . . . .

Bletchley Park is one of the strangest-looking museums you are likely to find, if you can find it. It was certainly Britain's best kept secret 50 years ago, and the current incumbents grumpily point out that it still is.

But without Bletchley Park, World War II would probably have lasted another two years. It was at Bletchley that code-breakers monitored and read the top secret communications between members of the German High Command during the Second World War. This intelligence, code-named Ultra, was kept secret until the mid 1970s, when the 30-year rule allowed its release.

Today, Bletchley Park is the home of the UK's first computer museum. Tony Sale, ex-computer- curator of the Science Museum, and a band of enthusiastic volunteers, help run it on a shoestring. In his spare time, Sale is working on another secret and is, as such, rewriting the history of the computer.

Bletchley Park was commandeered from the gentry in 1938 and became the home of Britain's code-breakers. It was known, amongst other names, as War Station X, Room 47 Foreign office and - probably the most recognisable - GCHQ.

After the war, the spooks relocated to Cheltenham, and now the Bletchley Park Trust hopes to get a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant to buy it from the government and British Telecom.

It was at Bletchley that Colossus was built. This was Britain's first - and, if the historians at Bletchley are to be believed, the world's first - electronic computer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Americans claim to have been first with ENIAC, but Sale insists that Colossus beat this by two years. The reason it isn't in most of the history books is because it was a secret.

Another claim for Colossus is that it introduced computer programming. Professor Donald Michie, once a staff member at Bletchley, came up with the idea of programming Colossus to take on more of the deciphering work, thus speeding up the results. Until this point the computer was used as a single-job processing system, but the idea grew that it should be used for as many of the operations as possible. This meant devising ways of getting it to do slightly different things: programming it.

SALE IS NOW building - and financing out of his own pocket - a replica Colossus. This is difficult because there are almost no surviving records. The British authorities stripped down all the equipment and destroyed the plans, reportedly on the orders of Winston Churchill.

The irony is that Colossus was made largely out of standard Post Office parts, and when it was stripped down, the parts went back into the spares bin at the PO laboratories at Dollis Hill. Indeed, some telephone exchanges around the country may still be using some of these parts, salvaged from one of the world's first computers.

The new Colossus is being pieced together with the aid of a few hand-drawn plans, some photographs, and the reminiscences of the staff that worked with it. A caveat to getting permission from the authorities, including the current GCHQ which had two Colossus machines in use until around 1960, is that "the general public would not be allowed direct hands-on access to the replica". Our masters move in mysterious ways . . . .

Bletchley Park is itself a museum of the whole code-breaking effort in the war. There are exhibits of how the code-breaking was achieved, for example, and some of the buildings have been restored to show how they looked when 12,000 people worked at the site. There is also a section that reflects the presence of the US Army staff that were stationed there: hence the tank.

But perhaps the most interesting part is the computer museum. At the moment it is still under construction, but there's a DEC PDP-11 mini in one corner, looking like something out of Dr Who, and a bench showing later developments: various IBM desktop PCs, an Amstrad 1512 and a Sinclair QL.

Also on display is a 1962-vintage Elliot 803 computer. It looks rather like a row of undersized vending machines, as it quietly hums to itself, still working after all these years. Sale says it was rescued after languishing in a barn for twelve years, and is now being looked after by the same engineer that tended it 30 years ago when it was gainfully employed.

Though far from finished, the museum is opening at weekends throughout the summer. Sale hopes to have the replica Colossus running by early next year, when the Americans will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of their computer. Sale wants to join in with a 52-year-old computer of his own.

Bletchley Park Trust is at Bletchley

Park, Milton Keynes MK3 6EF. Tel: 01908 640404. You can become a "friend of Bletchley Park" for £7 a year (£5 for OAPs).

Chris Long can be e-mailed as chrisl@cix.compulink.co.uk

11 May 95