A visit to The National Museum of Computing

Last weekend (Saturday the 2nd to be precise!) I visited The National Museum of Computing (aka TNMoC) which is based in the grounds of Bletchley Park.

This was my 2nd visit and I was especially interested in seeing the newly rebooted WITCH in operation and I wasn’t disappointed!

However, first things first. TNMoC is situated in the grounds of Bletchley Park and as well all know, Bletchley Park is home to the WWII code-breakers where they built the machines that decoded the Enigma, (Bombe), Lorenz (Colossus), and who knows what other ciphers and codes during WWII.

It’s important to note that TNMoC is a separate entity to Bletchley Park! They pay rent to Bletchley Park for the bunkers they occupy. That means you pay separately to get into TNMoC and an entry ticket to one does not give you entry into the other.

Currently (Dec. 2012) it’s £12 to get into Bletchley Park and £5 to get into TNMoC, however a slight confusion is that the Colossus and Tunny galleries are part of TNMoC even though they may appear to be part of Bletchley Park, and if you want to visit these, then there is a £2 surcharge on-top of your Bletchley Park fee – but that’s redeemable against the full price of a ticket into TNMoC (you then just pay £3).

Confused? I was, and so are many others, so to recap:

  • Entry to Bletchley Park to see the Enigma and Bombe displays is £12.
  • Colossus is owned by The Colossus rebuild company and is on long-term loan to TNMoC.
  • Entry to TNMoC is £5.
  • If you want to see the Colossus and Tunny galleries then it’s included in TNMoC entry but it’s a £2 surcharge if you just want to see the Bletchley Park (Enigma and Bombe) exhibits.
  • If you paid the £2 surcharge to see the Colossus, and subsequently want to see TNMoC, you only pay the balance of £3 to get into TNMoC.

There is also a £3 car parking fee on-top of that, but I’m not sure if that just applies to BP or to either BP or TNMoC.

So, back to TNMoC:

The WITCH computer is the oldest running digital computer on the planet and I wanted to see it in operation.

The WITCH control panel

The WITCH control panel

WITCH is the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell – It is essentially a programmable calculator – reading programs and numbers from 6 tape readers, feeding them through its relays, circuits and decatron tubes and producing results on a connected printer. The design was started in 1949 and it ran its first program in 1951. You can read the full story on the TNMoC website.

So I spent quite some time watching it, listening to it and trying to understand what I could of how it works. One day I’ll write a full-blown simulator for it, but not today…

The rest of TNMoC is still fascinating – as well as some of the older computers – IBM , Marconi, Ferranti, Digital (PDP) and so on, there is also a modern (well to me!) selection of microcomputers – starting with the Apple II, going through other variants – the BBC Micro, Spectrum and many others – right up to modern day organisers and the “smartphones” they’ve all more or less become now.

And something that should have been better/popular, but just didn’t make it…. Won’t tell you what, but the keyboard has an “Oops” key on it! (Ok, I will tell you, it was the PERQ!)

They also have some computers that are not that old (relatively speaking!), but completely unknown to me. Just keep looking and asking and you’ll find something you’ve never seen before, and at the end of the long corridor is the BBC Micro room – anyone who was a teenager in the 1980’s in a school in the UK will immediately recognise them and the bits and pieces connected to them.

Finally there is a little cafe and shop – they do nice hot chocolate and (I have to say) although it’s small and doesn’t do food other than biscuits/cakes, I’d go there any day over the canteen in BP!

However, while I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, it wasn’t without issue – the confusion between BP and TNMoC was one, but also I felt that TNMoC was lacking “something”. I suspect a proper sense of direction, but I know that it’s all staffed by volunteers who do a great job, but …

What I’d like to see is more “hands-on” stuff. I spent some time showing my wife how punched paper tape works – and just happened to use a handy TTY33 to help demonstrate it – however that TTY33 had a “do not touch” sign nearby, but hey, what’s a sign…. However that’s an issue. I feel we need more hands on things like that – there is a room with that lovely smell of warm machine oil, but just lots of what looks like junk lying about. What about a few TTY33’s with working tape punches and readers for kids (young and old!) to play with… Connect one up to a computer running BASIC for that proper authentic time-sharing experience… Get one to run “Eliza” and so on…. Hunt the Wumpus, there’s loads of old stuff like that that might be amusing to some…

So there you go – TNMoC – A great place. Visit it you can!

As for Bletchley Park… It’s fine too, but I’m not sure I’ll visit that part of the grounds again – and especially not the canteen )-: Very disappointing there… Take a packed lunch and get into the cafe at TNMoC for a hot chocolate!


A visit to The National Museum of Computing — 7 Comments

  1. Excellent post. Sums up my feelings precisely. I have always been a fan of BP yet been very annoyed at their relationship with TNMoC. Especially how they use Colossus as a major draw in their publicity but only treat TNMoC as a rent paying tenant. The recent move to evict the Radio Society and other private collections that made visits such a delight seems totally bonkers to me.

  2. Great post! You summed up the relationship between BP and us very well. And also our need to get true direction.

  3. Hi,
    Great write up on us. Yes there are areas we can improve on, we are trying but as I’m sure you can understand these things take time and money. Little by little we are getting there though, you should have seen us 5 years ago!

    With regards to hands on exhibits, we do our best to get as many exhibits as possible hands on to the public, but for some of them its is just impractical or unwise to allow the public anywhere near them. The machines in the hands on collection frequently get abused and occasionally damaged by, shall we say, rather ham fisted members of the public and as such we can only use machines that we have a lot of spares of and can be considered expendable. We can’t really have teletypes as hands on because (Speaking as somebody who has worked on them) they’re quite delicate and they have a lot of mechanical parts that would wear out quickly with a lot of possibly improper use. This coupled with the fact that getting the paper for them is quite difficult/expensive and we only have a limited stock of it means that we can only use teletypes for occasional short demonstrations.

    I think that compared to a lot of museums we have a large amount of hand on equipment, compare it to Bletchley park which I believe has no hands on machines (or at least very few). We try to get as many as our machines as possible into working condition when they’re on display but unfortunately some of these just aren’t suitable for hands on interaction, although I’m sure if you wanted to write a program for one of our running machines we would most likely be happy to run it for you (subject to prior inspection of course!). We are aware that some of our signage is somewhat sporadic and we’re working to improve it.

    Please do come and get involved, we have volunteers come from as far as yorkshire! Any time you could give would be greatly appreciated, especially if you’re willing to steward on a Sunday once a month!

    • Well, I don’t remember teletypes being that delicate! I spent 2 years in-front of them once upon a time, along with 30 other students, battering the living daylights out of them trying to be first to get the programs to compile…

      However, it’s a 4.5 hour trip each way and right now I can’t justify the time/cost to do it regularly – Not sure once a month would give any sort of continuity though. I’ll have a think about it in the new year.


  4. Hi Gordon, you say “Connect one [a TeleType] up to a computer running BASIC for that proper authentic time-sharing experience”. Well, I guess that the TeleType that you saw was standing in front of the Elliott 903. The 903 was made in 1966 or 1967, and we normally do demonstrate this by running a BASIC interpreter that I wrote in 1977. At the flick of a switch we can send the output to that TeleType, although we usually send the output to a “modern” VT220 glass teletype, to save wear & tear and consumables. But if one of the 903 team is around, we’ll happly let you type BASIC on the TeleType. Terry.

    • Sadly no-one was around…

      I did once program an Elliot 903 though – as part of a job. c1980. Wrote everything in SIR as I recall… I did suggest replacing it with an Apple II which would be a lot quicker and somewhat portable, but we couldn’t get a high-speed tape reader for it. It was analysing some blood analysis tapes for a hospital and acting as the backup for some ICL2900 monster in the room next door…