The Lost Computers

The Lost Computers

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I recently visited Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in the UK, which is famous for code-breaking during World War II.  Now it is a museum, but as well as recording the history of code-breaking, it also hosts the National Museum of Computing.  Their collection starts with the WWII machines, such as the Colossus, used for breaking the Lorenz cipher.  This early digital computer was a partially programmable device using thousands of valves as logic gates, and in fact they have a working copy of Colossus that was rebuilt from scratch over 10 years by volunteers.  Today it sits there reading input from paper tape and generating a fantastic amount of heat as it goes through its deciphering program.  This computer would not fit inside my house.

Colossus Display

The Colossus display









The Bletchley collection contains air-traffic control equipment, mainframes and a whole collection of home computers from the microcomputer revolution of the 1980s.  Where possible, the machines are put back into working order, so the ICL mainframe is there with its washing-machine sized hard disks spinning as they did in the 1970s.  The Cray Y-MP still awaits repair, but of course today a gamer's graphics card probably has more floating-point CPU performance.

The collection has great significance for me, as many of the machines I saw over the last 30 years are machines that I have seen or owned.  The DEC PDP8 is a machine that a schoolfriend and I tried to get from Oxford University when they threatened to throw it out.  The Research Machines 380Z and Commodore PET were the earliest machines we saw in our school.  Home microcomputers like the BBC Micro and Sinclair ZX81 were the machines that my friends used during the 1980s.   Some of the calculators (like the HP34 and HP71) I owned until quite recently, but I'm ashamed to say that I threw mine out!

I'm glad that someone somewhere is collecting this stuff, as the rapid changes in computing over the last few years makes everything obsolete in such a short time.  We tend to throw things away even before they are old enough for us to worry about the historical significance.  Even though the CPUs were puny and the capacity insignificant by modern standards, these are landmarks in technology, as important as the evolution of steam engines or early aeroplanes.  If you get a chance, do go to Bletchley Park and take a look.

ICL Disk Unit

ICL 80Mb hard disk.  My 1Gb USB drive is on top for scale.

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  • Quite Interesting. I will now preserve my Intel 486 DX2 Machine with Built-in Math Co-processor, 630MB HDD, 8MB RAM. A mighty machine in 1996, India.