S02: E11 Part 1

The National Museum of Fish

On Thursday my partner and I headed to Milton Keynes to spend a long weekend GEEKING OUT. We went to Milton Keynes for its proximity to Bletchley, the historic home of the Codebreakers.

There are two interesting places on the site of Bletchley Park. The first is Bletchley Park, and the second — hidden away at the back — is the National Museum of Computing.

I’ll start with TNMOC, as they like to call themselves. They give you a map at the entrance, and it sums up entirely, in a single image, the entire spirit of the place: earnest, geeky, and lacking in polish.

There is so much that’s glorious and good there. The depth of knowledge the staff have is unparalleled, and they are incredibly willing to share stories and explain complex ideas patiently and, in my case, multiple times. Apparently the following was a key understanding in how to break the complex Lorenz cipher:

A + C = F

F + C = A

but I’m afraid by the fifth time I was too scared to ask how and just nodded sagely. Answers on a postcard please.

But on the other hand, everything is very slapdash. For example: they have a series of wonderful collections of automatic calculating devices that appear to have simply been thrown into a cabinet together. It would have been wonderful to see the evolution of these fascinating machines from slide rules to the modern calculator, but instead it was just a mess of wonderful, unstructured pieces.

With that being said, the display and explanation of the Tunny and Colossus machines were worth the price of admission alone. They are incredible feats of love and dedication. Since they were used by secret organisations, both the machines and their designs were all (supposedly) destroyed at the end of the Second World War. By virtue of sheer determination, a group of hobbyists, amateurs, and former engineers have recreated these remarkable calculating machines.⁰ Colossus in particular is an incredible machine; an early calculator that could do addition of five-bit binary words at an incredible rate for the time.

The guide spoke assertively about the machine, and then gave us all a little slip of paper to translate. For fun, here’s the slip:

Ooooh, mysterious!

It uses the five-bit ITA2 code to encode Roman letters to dots and blanks.

It was a really pleasant way to end the exhibit and a lovely, tiny peek into the work of the machines and — more importantly — the human beings behind them.

The most pertinent example of this allowed for the creation of these incredible machines: a single mistake by a German officer allowed a brilliant mathematician named William Tutte to divine the structure of the encoding machine without ever seeing it.

This is an absurdly impressive intellectual feat. Completely, utterly, mind-bendingly impressive.

It is approximately equivalent in my mind to seeing a single drop of blood and then deducing the entire structure of the circulatory system. Of an alien.

But I digress. TNMOC is a diverting couple of hours and the massive machines are brilliant. But Bletchley Park is far, far superior. So I’m going to dedicate an entire blog to that subject.

⁰ I will be writing more about ciphers and cracking these the moment I actually understand them

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