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UK's National Museum of Computing celebrates 10 glorious years

Preserving Britain’s crucial contribution to IT

By Tony Smith, 1 Apr 2015

The National Museum of Computing (TNMoC), which yesterday celebrated its tenth anniversary as an independent organisation, will this coming weekend formally inaugurate a new membership club for enthusiasts of Britain’s computing heritage, and supporters of the museum.

The decade has not been without its growing pains, among them the sudden death of the founder, and a high-profile quarrel with the owner of the site on which the museum is located.

But in that time, TNMoC has established itself as one of the country’s key preservers of historical computer hardware and communicators of Britain’s rich information technology heritage.

The TNMoC Members’ Club builds on an existing membership run primarily as a means of acknowledging individuals’ donations to the upkeep of the Museum, which is situated within Bletchley Park – World War II’s ‘Station X’ – but since 2005 has been run separately.

Newly elected Club Chairman and Interim Treasurer John Linford says: “When I joined just over a year ago, I couldn’t believe the club was so small. So I started working with the staff here to see if we could find ways of changing that. There was no clear idea what the club was for other than giving the museum a bit of money every year.”

Like Linford, many of the TNMoC’s 210 members, of whom 40 attended an open day and inaugural AGM this weekend to rubber-stamp the new club, are current and former technology professionals who came to the museum’s aid just over a year ago when its existence appeared threatened during a major spat with the Bletchley Park Trust, which owns the Bletchley Park site and runs it as a museum dedicated to the efforts of the justly celebrated World War II codebreakers.

That endeavour culminated in the development of Colossus, the World’s first electronic digital programmable computer. The ten Colossi built between 1943 and 1945 and put to work at Bletchley Park were all dismantled and completely destroyed immediately after the conclusion of the conflict.

However, in 1994, the year the Bletchley Park site was opened to the public, assembly work began on the reconstruction of one Colossus, under the auspices of TNMoC founder Tony Sale.

Sale, who died in 2011, intended that the complete, working Colossus would not merely highlight the achievement of the Bletchley Park boffins and Post Office technicians who designed and built the original machines, but would also serve as the opening chapter in a story of Britain’s post-War contributions to the development of digital computing.

“The roots of the computer museum were actually put down in 1994,” says Margaret Sale, Tony’s widow and honorary President of the new TNMoC Members’ Club. “There were two steel beams which ended up being part of Colossus’ ‘bedstead’ and of course the Elliot 803 [a British mainframe from the 1960s]."

Colossi problem

"They were all here in 1994 when we opened up this building as the exhibition area. It happened to be the first building that [former site owner] BT released and allowed us to come into," added Margaret.

Tony Sale chose the museum’s current rooms in the Bletchley Park, called Block H, because his research had identified the building as one of those that had originally housed the Colossi.

“The next marker was 2005,” says Margaret. That year, the TNMoC became an independent charity, separate from the Bletchley Park Trust.

“That was brought about simply because by that time we had got Colossus up and running and the hierarchy of Bletchley Park decided they wanted this particular building, and were going to have it demolished for yet more housing," says Margaret. "I’m afraid the team who started the computer museum along with the Colossus rebuild rebelled at that, and that’s when we became a separate entity.”

A two-year fight for the right to remain in the historic Block H followed, but eventually an agreement was reached that allowed TNMoC to continue to operate on trust property. “Most people think the computer museum started in 2007 when we started paying rent to Bletchley Park, but that’s only because it took us a long while to fight for the lease.”

Since then, the museum has expanded, building on its Colossus and Tunny codebreaking galleries with major mainframe and microcomputing sections and, more recently, the addition of the 1951 Harwell Dekatron WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell), the World’s oldest original working digital computer; a new, Google-sponsored Women in Computing gallery; the National Physics Lab-backed Internet gallery; sections on pre-electronic computational equipment and analogue computers; and now the EDSAC reconstruction project, an attempt to replicate Cambridge University’s ground-breaking stored-program computer, the first digital computer to provide computing as a service.

Meanwhile, the relationship between TNMoC and the trust, both with their own ideas about the story the Bletchley Park site should convey to its many visitors, has never been entirely easy.

What might be described as a Cold War between the two organisations warmed up early in 2014 as a result of an argument over access to Block H.

That spat, says Margaret, is “all behind us now”, and the museum’s efforts are now dedicated to establishing itself as a visitor destination in its own right, and to providing what newly installed Museum Director Derek Taylor calls a more professional experience.

If the fight with Bletchley Park told the TNMoC’s own trustees one thing, it was that it if wanted the museum to be considered a visitor attraction capable of matching the stature of its better-known neighbour, it was time that TNMoC grew up. Enter Taylor, who came on board this past December.

“The role I was asked to perform was to bring to the museum some better structure, better organisation, and to try and get us on a more stable financial footing,” he says. Taylor has already expanded the organisation’s administrative structure, taking on marketing manager Wendy James in January this year and expects soon to hire a full-time administrator to manage the day-to-day running of a major museum.

“We get loads of inquiries from schools and corporates,” says Taylor, “and we’ve just got to get better at the job of processing those in order to support the museum.”

TNMoC has done a good job preserving its collection, making those artifacts accessible to visitors and telling the story of British IT, but today’s museum professionals know that no matter how high the educational value of what they are showing, if their institutions are to prosper, they have to compete essentially as players in the entertainment business too.

Expansion and evolution

What might in the past have been perceived as a old-fashioned reticence to engage with the realities of modern museum management, is likely to have been one cause of the Bletchley Park Trust’s past frustration with TNMoC as it itself has worked to become one of Britain’s premier visitor attractions.

It’s time, then, for TNMoC to evolve, just as hobbyists lashing up DIY computers in the 1970s moved up to mass-market machines in the early 1980s, and as university constructions like EDSAC eventually gave way to Britain’s commercial computer manufacturers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

TNMoC’s future depends on its ability to evolve with the changing times. Taylor and his team are very aware of this, but equally understand that they need to maintain the museum’s “ethic and ethos” too. The Museum has a solid history of hands-on exhibits, but business rigour is required too.

As Taylor admits, “it’s not possible to fund the museum from ticket sales alone”, and the new regime, under the guidance of the Museum’s seven trustees, Sale among them, is seeking to tackle that. “There’s a lot of work that goes in to getting that money to keep the place going, to fund new galleries, to fund storage, to keep the lights on – all the other things we have to do to stay in business,” adds Taylor. If you can’t afford to conserve Britain’s technology heritage, you can’t conserve Britain’s technology heritage.

New sources of sponsorship need to be sought out, and TNMoC is already establishing a successful sideline in providing companies large and small with team-building days. The challenge for one Cambridge-based hi-tech operation: learn to code the WITCH, and market your software to 1950s businesses.

Not that teaching a new generation about the story of the technology they take for granted has been set aside in favour of fee-paying corporates. “We have a large education programme,” says Taylor, a hat-tip to the efforts of the museum’s learning chief, Chris Monk. “What people might not know is that we have schools in pretty much every day. In this financial year, which is just about to end, we’ve had 4,500-5,000 students in. Education is a big part of what we are about.”

Expansion will allow the museum to bring to the fore more of the “several pantechnicons“ – as one volunteer puts it – full of kit that it currently lacks gallery space to show.

It also needs to more fully catalogue and document what it has, especially if ambitious notions to make much of its collection accessible to remote visitors via the net are to be realised.

This is where a growing membership can help, motivated by the new club’s goal of greater interaction between Museum and its closest individual supporters, says John Linford. “We want to arrange activities for members so that they can feel part of something. That has been lacking in the past, and we’re trying to change that. We want folks to be involved. Just because we have a volunteer organisation doesn’t mean we have all the resources that we need.”

To paraphrase American Express, TNMoC membership has its privileges: year-round free access to the museum as a visitor, but also access to its facilities, such as its library and document archive. There’s a cost, of course, but that remains the best way to support one of the few sites in the UK dedicated to describing the nation’s technology heritage.

Taylor and his colleagues are very complimentary about Britain’s other computing museums but, he says, “we do the best job of going all the way through the history of computing up to the present day and everything in between. And I think that to tell the story of computing, and the influence that the UK had on that story, is a very important one”.

Margaret Sale should have the last word: “When we set out way before 1994 to save the whole of Bletchley Park, it was to be a living memorial to all the work that went on here and to show how that had influenced the modern world.”

Bletchley Park is so important. But so too is a National Museum of Computing, and an "awful lot has happened since 1940".

Endnote

The National Museum of Computing’s Members Club requires a donation of at least £45 to join. More details can be found here. ®

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