Help fund historic computers at Bletchley Park

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Bletchley Park, the site in the UK where WWII code-breaking was done, has a computing museum. The showpiece of that museum is Colossus, one of world’s first computers. (If you pick the right set of adjectives, you can say “first.” Those adjectives are apparently, “electronic” and “programmable.”) It has been rebuilt over the last fourteen years by a dedicated team, who have managed to figure out how it was constructed despite all the plans and actual machines having been dismantled.

Of course, keeping such things running requires cash, and Bletchley Park has been scrambling for it for years now. The BBC reports that IBM and PGP have started a consortium of high-tech companies to help fund the museum, starting with £57,000 (which appears to be what the exchange rate is on $100,000). PGP has also set up a web page for contributions through PayPal at http://www.pgp.com/stationx, and if you contribute at least £25 (these days actually less than $50), you get a limited-edition t-shirt complete with a cryptographic message on it.

An interesting facet of the news is that Bletchley Park is a British site and the companies starting this funding initiative are each American companies. Additionally, while PGP is an encryption company and thus has a connection to Bletchley Park as a codebreaking organization, one of the major points that PGP and IBM are making is that Bletchley Park is indeed a birthplace (if not the birthplace) of computing in general.

This is an interesting viewpoint, particularly if you consider the connection of Alan Turing himself. Turing’s impact on computing in general is more than his specific contributions to computers — he was a mathematician far more than an engineer. He was involved in designing Colossus, but the real credit goes to Tommy Flowers, who actually built the thing.

If we look at the history of computing, an interesting thing seems to have happened. The Allies built Colossus during the war, and then when the war ended agreed to forget about it. The Colossi were all smashed, but many people involved went elsewhere and took what they learned from Colossus to make all the early computers that seemed to have names that end in “-IAC.”

(A major exception is the work of Konrad Zuse, who not only built mechanical programmable computers before these electronic ones, but some early electronic ones, as well.)

This outgrowth from Colossus also seems to include the work that turned IBM from being a company that primarily made punched cards and typewriters to one that made computers. It is thus nice to see IBM the computing giant pointing to Colossus and Bletchley as a piece of history worth saving along with the cryptographers at PGP. It is their history, too.

I think this dual parentage makes Bletchley Park doubly worth saving. The information economy has computers and information security at its core, and Colossus sits at the origins of both. Please join us in helping save the history of the information society.

1 Comment on "Help fund historic computers at Bletchley Park"


  1. While I wholeheartedly support the funding of Bletchley as a real national treasure, I think it’s important to be realistic about the impact it had on the early days of computing.
    While Colossus was certainly groundbreaking, it was also top secret. As a result it had a minimal impact on the fledgling computing research (Manchester Baby and Cambridge’s EDSAC and EDSAC 2). Likewise while Turing was certainly a groundbreaking researcher, he was only one of many involved in creating the computer industry we all know and love.

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