June 23, 2010
On Sunday I had the joy of experiencing four machines that have fascinated me for many years – three of which I had never seen in working order before. It was geek heaven for me.
Bletchley Park is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern electronic computing. Shrouded in secrecy during the Second World War, it was the home of the codebreakers – a talented team gathered from many nations that built upon the initial pre-war work of the Poles to crack the various Axis ciphers. Most famously, it was code breaking on an industrial scale. The Enigma decryption was aided by the brute force of the Bombe, and the Lorenz was attacked by the Colossus, the first true electronic computer. Both have held a special interest for me, and I last visited Bletchley Park when both were in the process of being rebuilt, the originals having been senselessly destroyed in the name of national security.
Seeing and hearing the Bombe clicking and whirring away as it went through the possible combinations was a magical and enthralling moment. There’s a certain presence and rhythm to the machine that is captivating and I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to have been surrounded by many of them, all working away to supply Churchill with his “Golden Eggs” and equip key Allied personnel around the world with an invaluable view into the National Socialist war machine.
Colossus itself is even more magical to behold. Like the Bombe, it has a presence that is quite unlike any modern computer – the natural rhythm of each decryption iteration, the lights and sounds of the Colossus at work had me spellbound and I returned a few times during the day to take another look. I’d love to find the time to volunteer to help maintain and operate both Colossus and the Bombe rebuilds.
Housed in the same building as the Colossus was another, albeit more modern, computer: the PDP-11. I’ve long held an interest with these particular DEC minicomputers for a variety of historical reasons, but notably the origins of UNIX, the C programming language and the pioneering artificial reality work by Myron Krueger which I covered in my university dissertation. Until Sunday I had never seen one in the flesh, let alone up-and-running. Another computer I would love to use.
The finale of the quartet is not one specific machine, but a range of them: the Amiga. To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the launch of the Amiga, Bletchley Park was home to a marquee celebrating Amiga past and present: from a selection of classic Amigas, to the new PowerPC Amiga hardware produced by ACube and A-Eon, the fantastic AmigaOS 4.1, and the iMica range of x86 machines running AROS. The Amiga still has a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase, and far from dying out over time seems to even be attracting a new generation of users – not to mention enticing back a few former fans. OS 4.1 and AROS look amazing, and the new hardware based around the elegant PowerPC chip is keeping the platform alive.
The Bombe, Colossus, PDP-11 and the Amiga – all at Bletchley Park. What more could I have wanted on a sunny Sunday?