Sunday, 17 June 2012

the first government computer is local

For every £40 spent by the UK state sector, nearly £1 goes on information and communications technology; well over double what we spend on roads.

Yet just 70 years ago, the electronic programmable computing on which all ICT depends was just a theoretical concept in the minds of visionaries such as Alan Turing (unusual man, genius who walked round the lake with a knotted on his head talking to himself). Calculations were made by humans, sometimes with the aid of machines, but these were mechanical and electrical.

At Bletchley Park, a country house and estate by the train lines and communication cables from London to the north-west, the government employed Turing and his peers to turn the concept of electronic programmable computing into reality, in order to crack the sophisticated enciphering machines of the Nazis. The work, which some historians believe shortened the war by two years, was blanketed in secrecy, and remained undercover for decades afterwards.

No longer. "Bletchley: Home of the codebreakers," reads the town sign. Pointers to Enigma Court, a new housing development named after the most famous enciphering equipment broken by the park, appear miles earlier.

Bletchley Park is now a collection of museums which show how rapidly computing developed during the desperate years of war. In September 1940, former university student Mavis Lever used pencil and paper to make a key breakthrough in cracking Italy's naval cipher, contributing greatly to Britain's first major naval victory in the war, when it sank five Italian ships at Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941.

While a Colossus has been reconstructed, the museum's Witch is the real thing. Later this year, the museum hopes to reanimate the Harwell Dekatron, later renamed the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computer from Harwell, which it believes will become the world's oldest working extant computer. The machine, already on show at the museum, was built in 1949 for the Harwell atomic power station in Oxfordshire.

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