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InfoQ Homepage News The Colossal Problem with Bletchley Park and TMNOC

The Colossal Problem with Bletchley Park and TMNOC

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Looking on at the Colossus rebuildToday is the 70th anniversary of Colossus, the first electronic computer ever created. Its purpose was to crack the Lorenz encrypted messages, and started operations on 5th February 1944, with a Mark II coming into service in June later that year. Because of secrecy concerns, the more well known ENIAC (which was created in 1946) was assumed to be the first computer created. However, whilst Colossus was the first electronic computer, ENIAC still holds the role of being the first programmable computer, as Colossus' task was fixed.

Colossus lives on in the Colossus gallery of the National Museum of Computing, based at Bletchley Park. Colossus was re-created thanks to the hard work of Tony Sale and many others who helped to save both the machine and also in helping save Bletchley Park from redevelopment from the growing housing boom in the local area.

The rebuild of Colossus was saved thanks to the memories of a variety of engineers who were able to reconstruct the machine from first principles and on scraps of information found. For readers in the UK, an interview with some of the engineers can be heard on the BBC world service. Tony Sale's personal site is still available explaining how it came to be rebuilt. Today, visitors to TNMOC can see the Colossus machine running at speed searching for the cipher wheel combinations in order to crack the code.

However, all is not well with Bletchley Park. Since winning a £4.6m Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the Bletchley Park Trust (which Tony Sale helped to get off the ground) has been systematically cleaning out the park. First to go was the model railway society, which occupied one of the former site huts, so that it could be redeveloped for future attractions. Next in the firing line was the Churchill memorabilia collection, which has been asked to vacate the premises for a similar reason. The annual Bletchley Park fireworks (Blitz Night) were cancelled at short notice as well.

The other Bletchley Park members – Station X and The National Museum of Computing are concerned that at best it is causing confusion for visitors and at worst is a systematic purge of the historic attractions which aren't owned or run directly by Bletchley Park itself. TMNOC pays Bletchley Park a fee of £100,000 annually, even though the heritage lottery fund was supposed to be for the preservation of historical artefacts on the site.

Last week, a Bletchley Park tour guide was relieved of his public touring duties, and was captured on camera as part of a BBC investigation, for daring to show visitors the Colossus exhibit. This resulted in accusations that Bletchley Park are trying to airbrush Colossus out of history, whilst they maintain that they have a responsibility to the nation to tell the stories of this code-breaking work. Tony Carroll, the volunteer in the news report, has been stripped of public tour duties but stays on as a volunteer for the trust in the educational department.

Checkpoint Charlie, created by fragmentation of Bletchley Park continues, with "checkpoint charlie" blocking the way between the main Bletchley Park site and the Colossus location. Despite calls to unify the visitor experience via a combined ticket and to make tours easier between the two, the current management of Bletchley Park have resisted efforts to unify the experience. Now, there is no mention of the Colossus machine or the rebuild project to visitors of Bletchley Park, and many visitors come without seeing one of the nation's key parts of its history, despite being cited in the application for the Heritage grant.

Checkpoint Charlie, as seen by Google before the fencing was put inGoogle have also contributed towards Bletchley Park, donating ½m as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant, with the former CEO Simon Grenish saying at the time "It would be wonderful if other donors follow Google’s example to help preserve our computing heritage." although this funding has since been used to erect fences between the main park and the computing heritage. At least there is mention of Colossus on the Google Cultural Institute. It was also the location that Google chose to launch MapMaker, an on-line tool for editing map corrections, as well as a Google camera car showing the huts around the Bletchley Park site. Ironically, the Google camera car shows the location of checkpoint charlie before the fence was installed, which gives a good overview of the changes instigated by the current Bletchley Park trust.

The National Museum of Computing has recently won prestigious British Educational Technology and Training (BETT) award, and remains open on the Bletchley Park site, at least for now. How long they remain there remains to be seen.

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