Museum websites on computing history landmarks (April-June 2015)

Two groups of museums and their associated websites will be presented here: the Science Museum Group and the Bletchley museums.

The Science Museum Group

Science museums with a section on computing history contextualise the topic in different ways, and their websites reflect their distinctive approaches. A previous chapter of the present blog mentioned the new ‘Communication Age’ gallery at the Science Museum in London, where the last sections deal with the Internet; here we shall focus on other museums of the same partnership – the Science Museum Group, which, in addition to the Science Museum in London, consists of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Media Museum in Bradford and the National Railway Museum in York. They all offer different web experiences.

These four major science museums have founded the open access Science Museum Group Journal , the first issue being published in Spring 2014 and the second in Autumn 2014. The second issue contains several articles related to our topics, one on the Longitude exhibition mentioning Babbage (on this, see previous page on the present blog), and one on electronic music.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

The website shows computing history in a local context. The section on computing is part of the galleries grouped under the theme ‘Revolution Manchester’, showcasing the technical revolutions initiated in Manchester in several fields – the link being the common point of bringing about a breakthrough. On the website, in the pages ‘Explore Revolution Manchester’, the section  ‘Computer Age’ is one of 6 topics, the others being ‘Transport’ (from the 1830 Liverpool and Manchester Railway – the old station being now the Museum building – to the aerospace industry), ‘Engineering’ (Whitworth’s mid-19th century machine tools and precision engineering) , ‘Cottonopolis’, ‘Energy’, ‘Structure of Matter’.

The ‘Computer Age’ section is focused on the ‘Baby’: the museum houses a replica of the computer named ‘Baby’, produced at the University of Manchester, as it was on 21 June 1948: ‘This was when the Baby successfully ran the world’s first digitally stored computer program’; the scientists who built it, Prof. Freddie Williams and his team, ‘aimed to test how cathode-ray tubes (CRT) could be used for digital storage. Williams had been inspired to try this by his wartime work on radar and CRT.’

An educational approach to the Baby is to be found in sections of the website such as ‘What’s On’, which announces the demonstrations named ‘Meet Baby’,  with a chapter ‘Did you know?’ which adds extra information: ‘The first program the Baby ran was a test for prime numbers’.

The pages on the Baby have links to other sections: ‘Related to “Electricity Gallery” –  “Connected Manchester” – “Calculating and Computing” ‘, which again offer a new contextualisation. If we take ‘Calculating and Computing’, we find a historical sketch showing how Manchester industries needed ‘to calculate properties of materials accurately’, which led to the production of slide rules in the 19th century, then to a 1930s ‘analyser for solving differential equations’ produced at the University, and then to the Baby, which is now seen as a stage in the history of calculations. In the same vein, we also find a link to the timeline set up by the School of Computer Science of the University of Manchester to trace its own history

 The National Media Museum at Bradford

The Museum has long been famous for its outstanding collection on the history of photography from the days of Fox Talbot, and more recently for its galleries on the media such as the cinema and then television: it was founded in 1983 as the ‘National Museum of Photography, Film and Television’. It keeps up with technical evolution, and under its broader new name (2006) of ‘National Media Museum’, the website has added a ‘New Media’ chapter, with photos of computers and a section of articles such as ‘A brief history of the Internet’ and ‘What is Web 2.0 ? ’

 The National Railway Museum at York 

Among the more recent developments of its website, we should mention its use of ‘crowdsourcing’ – a present-day practice in research asking members of the public to contribute their own data so as to construct a much broader database than might have been possible for researchers alone. The chapter ‘Our Collection’, for each section such as ‘Building the railways’ or ‘Running the railways’, allows the user to filter by category such as ‘Signalling and telecommunications’ for the first one, which produces a list of items with references, some with photos, and for the others offering the users to upload their own photos on Flickr with the tag of the museum reference.

The Bletchley museums

Bletchley (60 kms North of London) served during the Second World War  as a secret location for the laboratories of the intelligence teams in charge of breaking the enemy codes using early forms of computers; its existence was only revealed thirty years after D-Day in 1974, and the documents were declassified. It now houses two organisations dedicated to computing history, Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing.  Because of its confidential past, the websites reconstruct the museum experience as separate glimpses into several fragmentary aspects of its history.

Bletchley Park

On the website, see ‘Visit/What to see’ to have a description and photos of the park as it is now:  the ‘huts’ where the codebreaking work was done (with office equipment and machines of the time),  the ‘blocks’ with exhibitions on the codebreaking machines, the ‘mansion’ with the Commander’s office.

In ‘Visit/Multimedia Guide’, a video shows extracts of the multimedia guide for visitors, relating past and present.

The ‘History’ pages of the website have a section ‘Wartime History’ which gives a historical summary with wartime photos.

The History pages have a link to the Google Institute project, with digitised images of the machines including close-ups on the machinery, and pages of cipher. This archive also shows wartime photos of the site, both land-based and aerial photos – vital aerial views explaining how to avoid being identified from the air by planting trees to produce shadows.

The National Museum of Computing , in block H of the park.

Its major exhibit is a replica of  ‘Colossus’, the first digital semi-programmable  electronic computer which deciphered the enemy coded messages during the Second World War – the original Colossus was destroyed after the war to avoid espionage; it thus stands apart from the sequence of computing history since its workings were kept confidential. It was rebuilt between 1992 to 2007 from the rare surviving documents and from memories of those involved  – partly confidential since they had been sworn to secrecy -; the replica is described in the ‘Explore’ section of the website, which has videos by experts on the rediscovery of Colossus, and links to BBC websites on the topic.

The Explore section also has pages on punched-card and analogue computers, as well as a page on more recent developments such as the Internet.





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