An inspiring day out with codebreakers and the first electronic computer…

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The Badger visited Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) last week. It was a fascinating, atmospheric and inspiring day out, and very rewarding to hear the many visiting international tourists, young families, and elders say their expectations, like the Badger’s, were exceeded!

Bletchley Park, the home of British codebreaking, is where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code and a birthplace of modern electronic computing. The secret activities of this truly historic site profoundly influenced the outcome of World War 2. Seeing and hearing about the work of the codebreakers, the tools they used, and the highly atmospheric huts where they worked instils marvel at the brilliance and dedication of those involved. The place is a wonderful memorial to the exceptional patriotism, commitment, discipline and ingenuity of the codebreakers who, 75 years ago, were instrumental in the birth of electronic computing. Awesome!

Bletchley Park was involved in the design of Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. Colossus helped analyse enemy ciphers in the run up to D-Day and a functioning rebuild of this beast is on display at TNMOC. It’s full of thermionic valves not silicon chips, and for those of you who’ve never seen a thermionic valve the picture above is a small subset of those on Colossus.

Seeing Colossus and all the other computer hardware and software exhibits at TNMOC really brought home how far electronic computing has come in 75 years. It also makes you aware of just how the silicon chip has revolutionised electronics and fuelled digital tech’s exponential growth in the last 40 years. It was sobering to stand in a room full of late 1970s mainframes and realize that a smartphone has more instantaneous functionality, processing power and storage than the sum of everything in the room!

On the way home, while stationary in heavy traffic, there was ample time to reflect on a great day out. Both sites provide a reminder of how important scientists, engineers and mathematicians are to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. They also show and that experts 75 years ago were in no way inferior to their counterparts today. The impressive ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’ attitude of the codebreakers provides a stark contrast to some of the ‘I can’t, it’s too hard and it’s not fair’ complaining that pervades some parts of today’s social media.

As the ‘Smart Motorway’ signs decided to stop being smart, the Badger’s co-visitor asked if any philosophical nuggets of wisdom came to mind from the visit. The Badger thought for a moment. Yes! Take every opportunity to get an education – preferably as a scientist, engineer or mathematician – and don’t be fazed by whatever problems are put in front of you. And remember, ‘there’s no such word as can’t, try’…. If Bletchley Park’s people hadn’t tried, we wouldn’t have the freedoms and computing technology we have today.

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