back to article Rise of the machines, south of Milton Keynes

It’s the sounds that get you: wheels spinning, processors squeaking, the furious hammering of teleprinters, and some 1980s synth. Yes, computers really were this noisy – something you forget in an era when even the benign tap of the keyboard is giving away to the silent swoosh of finger on glass. I’m at The National Museum of …


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  1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Good article

    There can never be too much exposure of the museum, and you have to keep going back there, as it's very much a moving target. Besides, you can never hope to take it all in on just one visit!

    1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Good article

      Indeed. Anything that helps the remarkable work of Flowers et al properly recognised gets a thumbs up from me to.

      1. Frankee Llonnygog

        Re: Good article

        With all the knighthoods stripped away recently, there must be a spare one we can posthumously confer on Tommy.

        And this is where I repeat my plea: someone please start a band called The Tommy Flowers. Or, open a pub.

        1. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Re: Good article - Beer or open a Pub

          There is brew called Flowers Original which may present a problem - or an opportunity if the trademark owners are not a brain dead corporation.

  2. Anomalous Cowshed

    Tremendous place, this museum

    Bletchley Park is a name that conjures up dreams, memories of brilliant men producing fantastic solutions to protect their country and their fellow citizens from a very evil threat. The tricks they had to do to come up with these solutions are so ingenious, they are mind-boggling. In this place a battle of wits was waged against a technically brilliant and cruel enemy. What a tremendous heritage, what a symbol of fighting the good fight! How many millions of lives saved, without firing a bullet or raising a hand in anger!

    1. Steve Knox

      Re: Tremendous place, this museum

      Not just men:

    2. dave 93

      Re: Tremendous place, this museum

      Hmm, and deliberately sending thousands of seamen to the bottom of the Atlantic as 'bait' for the U-Boat convoys so they wouldn't guess the Enigma had been compromised. War is not a noble pursuit, sorry to disillusion you.

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Tremendous place, this museum

        This is just one of the conundrum's faced daily by the likes of Mr Churchill.

        If the Germans realised that the codes had been broken they would have changed the whole cipher thus making the whole effort to go back to step 1.

        Another was that the High Command knew that Coventry was the target. They had to decide if they should tell the population and risk this knowledge finding its way back to Germany.

        Personally (And having 6 Great Uncles with names carved in the Menin Gate) I think that the decisions made were in the long run correct.

        On a Lighter note, thise 256Mb CDC drives (in DEC RP06 form) were magic. You could set them into full seek maintenance and literally watch them dance over the floor.

        1. jake Silver badge

          @Steve Davies 3 (was: Re: Tremendous place, this museum)

          When I was at DEC, one of the guys taught the disk drives on a PDP-10 to play music on the SA-10 attached IBM Winchester. Then he learned to make the washing machine sized disk drive "walk" across the floor ... I had to fire him when he did it in front of Ken Olsen, who was visiting our lab. Was very hard on the hardware ...

        2. cshore

          Re: Tremendous place, this museum

          The story about Coventry has been, I think, comprehensively debunked. There is no evidence that the target of the raid was known before the afternoon of that day when the German navigation beams were switched on and converged over Coventry. There were messages warning of an imminent raid but three targets were given, no definite date was specified and the cities were given codenames. The codename for Coventry was not worked out until after the event.

          Sounds trite but, as the saying goes, "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." In order to win the Battle of the Atlantic, the information that the U-boat codes had been broken had to be protected. At all costs. And, yes, that meant some convoys were not completely protected. War is a nasty business.

          But, it is indisputable that the knowledge of Colossus which emerged in the late 70's and continues to emerge today, completely rewrote the history of the birth of electronic computing.

          That aside, thankyou so much for this article. BP is a world-class site aned deserves all the attention it can get. Anyone with a remote interest in computing and history will be completely enthralled by the place.


          1. breakfast

            Re: Tremendous place, this museum

            I remember talking to one of the people I was with about that Coventry story, which I believed at the time, while walking around the museum at Bletchley and having a gentleman who had actually been there at the time correct me. An awkward but valuable moment.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Tremendous place, this museum

        In war the choices can be similar but smaller and more personal.

        That machine gun post up there under commands the valley. Our infantry has to move through the valley now and we could lose hundreds of casualties. You need to send a platoon up there (the slope's not big enough for anything bigger) and due to the lie of the ground you won't be able to fire until you get to close range. Expect 25-50% losses. Who's going?

      3. gazthejourno (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: Re: Tremendous place, this museum

        Except they didn't - while Western Approaches couldn't home in on U-boat wolfpacks as and when they formed, they could massively beef up the escorts around the convoys and tip off RAF Coastal Command.

        In the latter half of the war German submariners could rarely surface for fear of detection by aircraft ... the fact that the aircraft had been vectored to their likely gathering points wasn't something they had the time to take into account. More than a few U-boat men's memoirs mention the ever-present threat from aircraft on the surface. They really did believe that the Allies had total air superiority over the Atlantic from '43 onwards.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    2966 disks?

    The description of the 2966 disk does not ring totally true. Its 200MB disk packs were relatively small - made of a stack of a few platters - probably the "122" one in the picture.

    There was a large single large disk platter mounted vertically that once apocryphally jumped its mounting to scythe through a wall. It was belt-driven and had to have a carefully controlled ramp up/down of speed - but IIRC that was earlier and another computer manufacturer.

    The other use of large platters was in the CDC 600MB fixed disk. A behemoth of one and a half tons with water cooled bearings. The two 300MB stacks were side-by-side - and had linked head armatures to balance the inertia forces. It was used by ICL on the top end System 4/70 and 4/75 sites in the late 1960s - a generation earlier than the 2966. The other 2900 series storage peripheral was a drum.

    A common story of replaceable 8MB disk drives was of their three-phase motors being connected to the mains incorrectly. This caused them to rotate in the wrong direction. Surprisingly the symmetrical heads still flew ok - and everything worked. However - the disk could not be read when moved to a properly connected drive.

    One of the places where this occurred was at the EEC factory at Kidsgrove. The Systems Test area had the three phase wires incorrectly coloured. As there was never a dormant period for the mistake to be corrected then the engineers knew the translation. The first batch of EDS8 drives on the prototype System 4/70 were installed by people from the Winsford factory who did not know about this quirk. It was only discovered after much head-scratching - when a systems programmer loaded the embryo 7J operating system disk that had been created upstairs in the bureau suite.

    1. GerryMC

      Re: 2966 disks?

      I can confirm that when I worked with a 2966 in the mid eighties the removable disks were 200MB in covers like the one labelled "122". While I was there they added a bunch of pairs of 80MByte? fixed disks in similar orange cabinets.

  4. davenewman

    Did a tour on a Sunday with BCS Reading

    Groups can book tours at other times. I went with a Reading meetup group (connected to BCS) on a Sunday and spent hours going around the computing museum, and then the Bletchley Park museum.

    The Bletchley Park one wasn't so good. They had a non-working, partially complete, Bombe (the mechanical computer used to break Enigma traffic).

  5. Richard Taylor 2
    Thumb Up

    Great article

    But..... if you persist on using the term 'most unique' your life will be cursed. And my NeXT cube is still running well and still typesetting all of my TeX

  6. Paul_Murphy


    Do TNMOC sell Raspberry Pi's? if not then they might consider having a few (and accessories) for sale since once a child has tried their hand at programming it would be a good way to get started.

    Aside from that I also recommend visiting the BP site - there is just so much, and if you read the notices and ask questions you'll uncover the story of the 21st century.

    And to think that all this could have been lost.


  7. Steve Knox

    Pretty cool...

    ...but no mention of the use of Colossus in the advancement of Numberwang?

    1. John 62
      Thumb Up

      Re: Pretty cool...

      And that's Numberwang!

  8. Chris Miller


    Although many of the boffins who worked at Bletchley Park during the war were recruited from Cambridge, it's not exactly close (over an hour by car, much more by public transport). Oxford is actually nearer. There's no shortage of fine Bucks country hostelries much closer than either city.

    1. messele

      Re: Cambridge?

      In fact Bletchley is roughly equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge and any talk of travel between the two is irrelevant when you realise both were linked to Bletchley by rail back in the day, which was primarily a railway hub settlement. What we now know as the West Coast Mainline actually terminated at Brunel's Denbigh Hall Bridge (Bletchley) for a good many years.

      Its history didn't happen by mistake.

  9. dave 93

    Bletchley IS Milton Keynes

    They might not like it, but Bletchley is definitely part of Milton Keynes, and Bletchley Park is in the middle of Bletchley. Just sayin'

  10. Gomez Adams

    Bletchley Park is in (not near) Milton Keynes

    For the avoidance of confusion.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dumbing down of education...

    What an amazing place, so much history and innovation. I work for the "computing" department a local college and as far as I know we've never been on a trip here! Many lecturers have tried over but been blocked by management.. Government agenda? Your comments are appreciated...

    Anonymous (and via VPN) for fear of repercussions from this government funded institution somewhere in MK.

  12. peter_dtm

    never use post codes for navigation !

    to help ordinary mortals :

    The 'GPS' numbers are decimal Lat Long : 51.998794,-0.743705

    and is quite simply 51.998794 North, 0.743705 West

    or in British terms using the National Mapping standard - Ordanance Survey National Grid Reference :

    SP 864 341.

    For $Diety's sake stop using post codes when telling people where things are - they're fracking useless. They can put you the wrong side of a river/hill/railway line

    Not only that you are claiming your GPS device is acurate to better than 4.4 INCHES ? - because that is what all those decimal places imply - (there are 60 nautical miles in a degree at the equator; the rest is just arithmatic).

    Use NGR - and stop calling Lat/Long 'GPS' (or can we call el reg a blog ?)

    1. Mikey

      Re: never use post codes for navigation !

      Pete, you seem to forget that not all of us mere mortals have need of a GPS system to find somewhere. Occasionally, we like to use a thing called a 'map', and 'plan' how we're going to get there BEFOREHAND, thus committing the route to memory. And even with a postcode, Google Maps will put you in the right area, provided you have a screen capable of displaying more than an inch of the map at a time.

      This prevents us from having to keep checking the little annoying talking box of misdirection when it leads us on a merry random trip via roads that may or may not actually exist. Just saying ;O)

      1. peter_dtm


        It is exactly for those with out GPS that will benefit iff el reg realised that post codes are stuff all use for ordinary mortals and 'GPS' readings are nothing more than Lat/Long position

        Those who plan ahead and use OS maps are double stuffed - unless they are really really good with plotting Lat/Long onto OS maps (sort of easy if you have to do it often)

        and never foreg; since the OS map co-ordinates are the legal definition of where things are; if the OS map is wrong; it is atl least definitively and legally wrong

        just saying too

        anyone using post codes as a way of navigating should be hung drawn & quartered

  13. David Given


    TNMOC has a working Domesday Disc setup --- the customised BBC Micro, laserdisc player, trackball, the lot. And it's running and you can play with it.

    I can strongly recommend both TNMOC and Bletchley Park itself. They're both utterly fascinating, in different ways. If you have even the slightest interest in cryptography or computing, visit both. Tips: go at the weekend, because that's when the really knowledgable and enthusiastic volunteers are there; *do* go on the guided tour, as it's really good; and budget about twice as long as you think you'll take. There's an awful lot to see.

    Plus, of course, they've got all the wacky old 8-bit micros that the Reg has been reviewing in the 'Archaeologic' columns.

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: Domesday!

      Hmm, I wonder if that will still be working in 1000 years' time?

      You know, like the original one........

  14. Lars Silver badge


    OK, "my" first computer was a Elliot "some thing" at the Rugby College of Engineering Technology. Punch tape, Algol, a plotter, a girl with the most beautiful legs running the tapes and superb teachers. But how in hell can you add Jobs into those years .68. He was 13 then. Oh Christ.

  15. PeterO

    @Lars (Elliott)

    Rugby College of Engineering and Technology had an Elliott 803 delivered in 1962, so come and revive at least some of your memories. We don't have an authentic operator though !

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. graeme leggett

    I like the idea of hands on

    Sometimes something more is desireable than just looking at it through a perspex screen.

    To that end, if I ever end up a multi-millionaire, I plan on buying an aircraft which I will donate to my local aviation museum on the proviso that it carries a large sign saying "touch me, sit in me".

  17. Christopher Slater-Walker

    Elliott 803, paper tape and teletype

    My secondary school in Loughborough had an Elliott 803 donated by a local company, and it was on that machine that I cut my IT teeth. It had a paper tape reader and teletype output, as well as a few other decidedly non-standard output devices crowbarred in by fellow enthusiasts, so I'm a bit surprised to read that it was with the 903 that paper tape input became available.

    Also we had the memory expansion, which I remember as being from the default of 4K to 8K, so once again my memories of the 803 don't quite tally with the article.

    1. PeterO

      Re: Elliott 803, paper tape and teletype

      Hi Chris! Sadly some of the details of the Elliott machines got a bit mixed up by El Reg's Journo ! Probably they were too excited by it all :-) I would trust your memory. There is a picture of the 803 in P4 hanging on the wall behind the 803 at TNMOC. Only yesterday I was running some HCODE programmes on the 803.

  18. jai

    must get around to going

    Ashamed to say that i've never been, yet it's literally only 20 minutes up the road from me.

    Hopefully this article is the inspiration i need to get me there this summer.

  19. Kubla Cant Silver badge


    I hesitate to dispute the account of somebody who's actually visited Bletchley Park, but the books I've read, both about BP and about cryptanalysis in general, suggest that Tunny was the code name for the traffic, rather than the name of a machine, and that Lorenz was a superencipherment.

    1. PeterO

      Re: Tunny

      See for details of what is at the museum.

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