Art is made to disturb, science reassures. George Braque
Three Witches – one scientific and two artistic – have been brought together for a public display at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park until the end of April 2018.
Never before have the three Witches been seen together, and recently the art owners met the museum computer restorers for the first time to view the science and the art, each of the three artifacts created three decades apart and spanning 67 years.
The WITCH machine, the inspiration for the two paintings, is the Guinness World Record holding 1951 Harwell Dekatron computer, the world’s oldest working digital computer. Restored to full working order in 2012, it is now a key element of the Museum’s Learning programme in showing – in extreme slow motion – budding computer science students how computers really work.
The once-dead WITCH computer inspired John Yeadon, a thirty-something artist in the early 1980s, to create A Portrait of a Dead WITCH: ‘a humorous but sinister painting as an homage to a sad unused defunct machine.’ For Yeadon, the WITCH was ‘a diabolical contraption, a dusty hunk of hardware’ that reminded him of the 1950s Quatermass science fiction television series of his youth. ‘My intention in 1983 was to paint a parody of ‘computer art’, a then emerging field of computer-generated art.’
A few years ago, that 1983 Portrait of a Dead WITCH disappeared, but a campaign by the artist and Museum rediscovered it on display in a Manchester café in the proud ownership of Kaldip Bhamber. “I just loved the painting and was fascinated to discover that it was of a computer – I had no idea, I was just fascinated by the painting!” recalls Ms Bhamber.
Further inspired by seeing the restored WITCH working at TNMOC and by rediscovering his lost painting, Yeadon re-interpreted the computer to create a new version of his painting: It’s Alive!. ‘It seemed a fitting way to mark my seventieth-year retrospective,’ said Yeadon.
Notes To Editors
The Harwell Dekatron /WITCH computer
Occupying an area the size of a living room wall and weighing a couple of tonnes, the WITCH, with its 828 flashing dekatrons (valves or tubes) was first operational in 1951 at Harwell in Oxfordshire. When it became obsolete there in 1957, it was won in a competition by the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire College of Technology where it was used as the Wolverhampton Instrument for the Teaching of Computation from Harwell (hence its later name: the WITCH). In 1973, it was recognised by Guinness World Records as "the world's most durable computer" and was again retired, this time to the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. When that Museum closed in 1997, the computer was put into storage, but was rediscovered by TNMOC in 2009, restored in 2012 and again recognised by Guinness World Records, this time as the world's oldest original working digital computer. Today, it mesmerises students on the TNMOC Learning Programme by displaying operations that modern computers keep secret.
The artist and the paintings
John Yeadon is a nationally recognised artist who has exhibited throughout Britain and abroad over 50 years. He created the Portrait of a Dead WITCH in 1983 and It’s Alive! Harwell Dekatron WITCH in 2017. Thanks to Kaldip Bhamber, The Portrait of a Dead WITCH is currently on loan from Jam Street Café Bar, 209 Upper Chorlton Road, Whalley Range, Manchester M16 0BH.
About The National Museum of Computing
The National Museum of Computing, located on Bletchley Park in Block H, one of England’s ‘irreplaceable places’, 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.
The Museum runs a highly successful Learning Programme for schools and colleges and promotes introductions to computer coding amongst young people to inspire the next generation of computer scientists and engineers.
Sponsors of the Museum have included Bletchley Park Science and Innovation Centre, Fujitsu, InsightSoftware.com, Paessler, Sophos, Lenovo, Bloomberg, Ocado Technology, Ceravision, CreateOnline, 4Links, Google UK, IBM, NPL, HP Labs, FUZE and BCS.
The whole Museum is open to the public from 12 noon – 5 pm on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, spring and summer Bank Holidays. During long school holidays, there are additional opening days. The Colossus and Tunny galleries are open daily. Public and private Guided Tours are available and bookable online – see the website for details. Educational and corporate group visits are available 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+.
Stephen Fleming, Palam Communications, for The National Museum of Computing