General Technology

We visited the National Museum of Computing, NMoC: day zero after lock down

September 9, 2020

I’ve been itching to get to this place since I first visited when it wasn’t even called a museum and was a collection of a few volunteers in the same space as the Bletchley Park museum and was called “retro beep”. In fact I had hoped to go as Bletchley park re-opened but alas I had to wait another month or so until 8th of September 2020 until the NMoC opened again.

It’s open again! Historic Working Vintage Computers

That should delight those of you who like vintage computing, retro computing or just the history of computing (or any history really). NMoC has a real treat in store for you. Perhaps the most fascinating place technically on the planet for those who love their bits, bytes (but as yet not qubits). Like no place on earth, there are literal “world first’s” at the museum. They have the world’s earliest working original digital computer from the 1950’s, using relays and “Dekatrons”. The machine was used to commission a nuclear power station. I was blown away by the sight of these colourful but primitive tubes of inert gases glowing but also showing very visually how the memory worked (storing in Decimal, not binary). You can see the machine working, operating, burning a tonne of juice to compute some numbers at a slow speed but diligently.

This is no reproduction machine, the machine and the Dekatron‘s are original. Amazing technology from almost 70 years past. Sure calculations might have taken a few seconds, but the machine doesn’t need a break for coffee or a comfort break, sleep etc. The machine is named: “Harwell Dekatron Computer”, as Harwell was the nuclear facility that the machine was computing the calculations required to build nuclear facilities.

Harwell Dekatron Computer. The machine uses memory stores that you can actually see.

Staffed by real experts

So that is just one story expertly introduced by the volunteers at NMoC who are there as guides whose knowledge of the machines is far from cursory. These volunteers give up their days, evenings, weekends, to build, maintain and rebuild these machines. So forget hand-waving explanations, these volunteers can strip these machines down and build them – they understand them intricately and whats more are happy to explain. For any age the volunteers will provide an explanation tailored to your background knowledge, from 2 to age 92. The volunteers are really there to help you better understand machines from Colossus to the Bombe (used for breaking Nazi codes) and we were again expertly walked through these machines and their operation. You can see the palpable joy that the volunteers have of being there and interacting with both machines and minds.

There are another couple of machines that people will have in their minds: the Bombe (used to help crack the Nazi Enigma code) and Colossus, a beefier version of the specialized Bombe machine. Each of these machines has a dedicated volunteer or two who can you you the machines actually working. For example the Bombe is a recreation of the WW2 device, but it is a faithful recreation which has taken more than a decade to construct. Not only does it work and you can see it running, you can explore how it worked in deciphering a message. For example, the German Enigma would code “plain text” into encrypted text. The Bombe’s task is to help determine the settings of the German Enigma machine, hence then enabling their codes to be broken. Ask and you’ll be walked through the mechanics of the operation.

You can also see a more familiar computer architecture machines (although it might not look it), i.e. the Colossus. The machine used vacuum tubes to perform Boolean and counting operations. Colossus is considered as the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer. You can see the stored program coming in on paper-tape where you can literally see the bits on the tape.

Aside from the really old machines dating back to what feels like computing pre-history there are more familiar machines such as Sinclair’s, BBC’s, Apples etc not only display, but there for interaction. In fact there is an entire room of BBC Micro’s set up as classroom. Despite all the modern technology, simpler machines from the past are valuable learning tools for students to understand how the fundamentals of computers work. Just look at the interest of Raspberry Pi’s.

NMoC is truly a national treasure that will delight the hearts and minds of many because it touches so much of our collective history, not just computing. The machines there impacted our lives in countless ways from bringing us near ubiquitous computing (devices everywhere) to assisting scientists running their experiments. This museum keeps these machines running and alive. That is a truly unique experience which they must be immensely proud. I don’t fancy wiring up a Bombe anytime soon, so its fantastic that the nation has this asset, and for that it must be applauded. A big thank you to the volunteers who make this place what it is. I feel privileged to learn so much from them!

Visiting is really quite easy. You can take a train, or car. Plus its family friendly. OK the little ones might not understand everything, but the slightly older “little ones” will love the ability to interact with the vintage computers (everything from Amiga’s and BBC’s to more rare machines like the Einstein). In fact just about anyone who has been through school will recognize the myriad of machines and technologies on display, which will no doubt bring back memories of double Math’s (ha ha) or maybe something more fun – like playing early platform games on the BBC Micro. I know, I used to bunk off some classes to get more time in the computer room.

To see more about how to get the Museum visit the official NMoC website. If you like to support the National Museum of Computing, one of the best ways is to visit or to become a supporter. Lockdown has been tough for museums like the NMoC, so if you have a spare morning or afternoon, take a trip and explore computing history, you might just learning something. I know myself and family did.