How I became a Volunteer

For over twenty years, starting in 1979, I worked for Digital Equipment Co Ltd. (DEC, which later merged into Compaq, and is now HP) starting as a Software Specialist and finishing as a Technology Consultant.

All this time we were living in Dunstable, which is fifteen miles away, and somehow I got to hear of Bletchley Park (BP), but initially the museum only opened every other weekend.  Our first attempts to visit seemed always to coincide with one of the ‘other weekends’ and consequently our interest in visiting waned.

That all changed in the summer of 2006 when I found myself no longer wanted as a contracting software application designer at Philips Semiconductors and decided that retirement was an acceptable path to take.  Now we had the time to visit BP and so we made our way north from Dunstable.

In those days admission was to the whole site and it was most probably a weekend because we found that H Block was fully open.  We saw Tunny, we saw Colossus and the we walked into the main computer gallery to be confronted by a system with disks that I recognised.  The system was a PDP-11 and the disks were RL02s.  It was the RL02s that got me because I had been at a customer event where DEC had launched these ‘infinite capacity’ drives.  Yes, when they were launched 10MB was considered an outrageous amount of disk space, and I mean outrageous large.  Of course by today’s standards, 10MB is just about enough for a single picture on a digital camera, but in those days it was enormous.  And the first system sale using them that I was involved with was of a PDP-11 to a customer who wanted two RL02s – yes really, two!

Seeing the disks in the museum I started talking with one of the volunteers and, after discussing DEC, PDP-11s, RL02s, VAXes and Alphas, he asked me what I was doing during the week.

“I’ve just retired, but I’m looking to do all the things I never had time for when I was working”.

“What, like helping here?”

And that was all it took.

Initially I was a volunteer in the Post Office at the side of the Mansion.  Then, after a year it was suggested that I should become a Tour Guide for the public tours.  Next came the role of Premium Tour Guide taking booked groups round.  At that time tours came into see Tunny and Colossus, where Tony Sale took over the guide role, but after a number of visits Tony caught me with the “I’m rather busy today, but you’ve heard it often enough, so carry on”.  After my first attempt I sought reassurance that the delivery was satisfactory and to my surprise and delight I found that I’d ‘passed’.  During that time I met some interesting people including Warren Clark, Joanna Lumley, Geoffrey Palmer, Baroness Trumpington and Lord Asa Briggs.  But I also met some veterans from WW2 whose stories were always intriguing, but were still sometimes shrouded in secrecy.  

Nowadays my guiding is limited to the stories of breaking Lorenz told in the Tunny Gallery, with occasional forays into Colossus.

- As told by Nick Hill