Colossus veterans revisit virtual and real worlds

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Colossus veterans and their relatives gathered to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the world’s first purpose-built computer centre, Block H on Bletchley Park, and were enthralled by a prototype 1940s-style virtual Block H.

Block H on Bletchley Park, now home to The National Museum of Computing, was built in September 1944 specifically to house the Colossus computers that were shortening the war by speeding up the deciphering of the top secret Lorenz/Tunny messages between Hitler and his generals. These first computers were huge and required a specially constructed spacious new building. The original purpose of the building was kept secret for decades, but today it is home to the Colossus Rebuild and working computers from the seven decades of computing that have followed those pioneering years.

The Block H celebration brought together eight Colossus veterans, and relatives of people key to the breaking of the Lorenz cipher and the development of Colossus. Relatives included the son of Colossus designer Tommy Flowers, the great nephew of Bill Tutte who discovered how the Lorenz machine worked, the son of Major Tester who headed up the Testery code-breakers, and the wife of Captain Jerry Roberts who was a top code-breaker in the Testery.

Other veterans, not all of whom could attend, made contact with TNMOC following the Colossus at 70 celebrations in February, the rediscovery of a 1940's photo of Colossus Wrens and the appearance of some Colossus Wrens on BBC's The One Show.

As part of the anniversary, the first results of an embryo project to recreate a virtual 1940’s Block H was revealed to the Colossus veterans. Their response was enthusiastic and very informative, helping to fill in some of the details of this very important heritage building in those top-secret days.

Chris Monk and Owen Grover of TNMOC began work on the prototype virtual Block H during the summer months and the reception from visitors was so positive that the Museum is now seeking funding to enable the project to be fully researched and completed.

Chris Monk, Learning Co-ordinator at TNMOC, explained: “We used OpenSimulator, open source software, and some high-powered PCs from Chillblast to recreate a virtual Block H. Our early attempts were rough and ready, but the reaction of visitors has astounded us. They really got it and their imaginations were unleashed especially when they used the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to walk past the whirring Colossus computers and retrace the steps they had just taken in today’s Block H.

“Talking to the Colossus veterans at the reunion we have learned a lot more about the nature of Block H in the 1940s. Even after so many years, the veterans were able to recall some key facts which are helping the project. We’ve encountered quite a few surprises about life back then. When I asked what their desks were like, the veterans looked at me askance — they had no desks, they perched on stools when necessary! The veterans thought the harsh fluorescent lights, a fledgling technology back then, were particularly realistic in our recreation. A lot more research is required to develop the project and the team has even been carefully scraping eight layers of paint in small patches to re-discover the original wall coverings.”

Bob Willett, a TNMOC trustee, concluded: "The industrialisation of code-breaking in Block H did not just change the outcome of war. It marked the beginning of a series of achievements that have helped create our modern world. At the Museum we want to tell that story to inspire young people and highlight the significance of computer sciences and engineering in creating an innovation culture that is at the heart of successful modern economies."

About The National Museum of Computing

The National Museum of Computing, located on Bletchley Park, is an independent charity housing the world's largest collection of functional historic computers, including the rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, and the WITCH, the world's oldest working digital computer. The Museum enables visitors to follow the development of computing from the ultra-secret pioneering efforts of the 1940s through the large systems and mainframes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the rise of personal computing in the 1980s and beyond.

A pledge by an individual benefactor of £1 million if matched funding is found means that every pound or dollar donated to the Museum will count double. Funders of the Museum have included Bletchley Park Capital Partners, Bloomberg, CreateOnline, Ceravision, InsightSoftware.com, Google UK, IBM, NPL, HP Labs, BCS, and 4Links.

The whole Museum is currently open to the public on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12 noon, spring and summer Bank Holidays and increasingly during school holidays. Colossus and Tunny galleries are open almost every day. Guided tours are available at 2pm on Tuesdays. There are often additional opening times for the public -- see the website or the iPhone app for updates. Educational and corporate groups are very welcome and may visit on any day or evening by prior arrangement.

For more information, see www.tnmoc.org and follow @tnmoc on Twitter and The National Museum of Computing on Facebook and Google+. A TNMOC iPhone App is also now available from the iPhone App Store.

Media Contacts

Stephen Fleming
Palam Communications
t +44 (0) 1635 299116
e s.fleming@palam.co.uk

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