Retromodo: The Mother Of All Computers

Retromodo: The Mother Of All Computers

When you go on holiday, you probably dream of beaches, bright sun and those little drinks with umbrellas in them. Whereas I spent (some) of my holiday time peering at the mother of all computers.

When I say mother of all computers, I’m not just talking about the size of this particular behemoth — or in this case, Colossus. This is the Colossus Mk 2 that resides in the UK’s National Museum Of Computing at Bletchley Park. While its role was secret for many, many years, it’s the direct ancestor of… well, everything IT today.

Giz has covered the Colossus before, but why would I pass up the chance to see the thing in the massive flesh?

The rebuilt Colossus is a labour of love that requires constant maintenance, and impressively (so I was told when I was there) contains a number of original 1940s era parts. That’s doubly impressive when you consider that until the 1970s, Colossus technically didn’t exist as far as the UK government was concerned; it’s only thanks to the fact that engineers kept some notes on its construction, a few stripped down parts and the fact that the US authorities were happy enough to reveal secrets that the UK government weren’t that the rebuild was possible at all. It now happily spits out chunks of tape at will — and I’ve framed the bit of tape that the staff were kind enough to hand me. Yes, I’m that sad.

A quick moment of Australian pride here: the era-equivalent of the Colossus, the CSIRAC, is still very much in one piece. Although it’s one non-functional piece, so that’s something of a strike against it.

Astonishingly, the Mk 2 Colossus isn’t the only treasure to be uncovered at the computing museum; it also houses the WITCH — technically the Harwell Computer renamed the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell — in a near fully functional state. This snapshot shows the Witch just (so I was told) needing its power supply connected. That’d be the massive block on the left of the photo, if you were wondering.

The day I went, Bletchley Park was exceptionally quiet, my own family notwithstanding. If by any chance you’re likely to be in the UK as a tourist any time soon, go there. Stuff the London Eye, Tower and the rest — spend the money on a train ticket to Bletchley and enjoy everything they’ve got there.

Including Enigma machines. Oh, so many Enigma Machines.

[Bletchley Park and The National Museum Of Computing]