In Business Chips off the Old Block

Listen to Chips off the Old Block (09/09/2010)

Famous though it is, I had always thought of Bletchley Park as merely a huddle of low huts in which some of the cleverest people in Britain concentrated day and night on decoding German naval communications during WW2.

Haunting but limited fun for the visitor, even with an Enigma machine to spice things up.

Yes, the huts are still there. But some of them have been turned into an evocative display that takes the intellectual intensity of the Enigma days into the future.

Right at the top of the Bletchley Park complex (near Milton Keynes) are some of those wartime huts which now house the National Museum of Computing. It is very special indeed.

One of the most spectacular items on display is a painstaking reconstruction of the first programmable computer in the world, called Colossus. It was built by geniuses in Britain to crack ever more complex German codes in 1943. It had to be rebuilt from plans and photographs because it was dismantled at the end of the war to stop this potent machine falling into the hands of our (Soviet) enemies.

Elsewhere in the world, most computer museums I've seen are arrays of static machinery. Enthralling if you are excited by keyboards and small, black and white screens, and a parade of now defunct brand names that once carried the hopes of a new industry in their logos.

Valves

But half the power of the computer has always been in the software ... the invisible instructions that make the wires hum and enable the chips to do the switching that processes data and creates new ideas.

In most computer museums, they cannot show the software because the machines are no longer up and running. But in Bletchley Park, they are.

Not just the Colossus, valves humming, lights blinking, paper tape spindles whirring.

There is a functioning suite of BBC Micros which enables school classes to learn how to programme computers. It's a skill that's been left to specialists for decades now, as proprietary software took over from the homebrewed stuff that launched a generation of the UK's home computer enthusiasts.

The National Computing Museum is both a moving and an instructive trip into a recent past. It's also a reminder of how important British specialists were to the spread of computing as we know it today.

The dismantling of the Colossus machines at the end of the war was not the end of the British computer effort, though some experts think that the fact that some much very early UK computing was linked to the state inhibited the commercial development of what became a vital business tool.

Even so, the world's first commercial computer, Leo, was the one produced for HR and payroll purposes for the bakery group J Lyons in the early 1950s, a truly visionary development.

Later scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington came up with the process of "packet switching" that made possible the development of the Internet.

Clive Sinclair produced the very first pocket calculator and THAT home computer for which the user had to commandeer the family TV for a display screen.

With marketing nous, Alan Sugar threw in a screen as part of the deal, and Acorn of Cambridge designed the BBC Micro computer which introduced a generation of school children to the delights of computing, using BBC Basic.

Influenced by these commercial (and pioneering public service) commitments, Britain had for a time in the 1980s more computers per head than any other country in the world.

Cooler

But we lost that eminence, the world moved on, and now it takes a trip to the National Museum of Computing to bring back that pioneer age.

So many significant developments, and they seem to have evaporated.

Except that young people were inspired by the primitive early computers they used at home. And out of Acorn computers came ARM, the Cambridge based chip designer that now has billions of its chips in mobile phones and other equipment all over the world.

ARM's reduced instruction set RISC chips keep computers cooler and more efficient than many of their widely known rivals.

One of the ARM founders (the very influential) Hermann Hauser of Amadeus Partners says he's now convinced that we're in the middle of the Fifth Wave of computing (after mainframes, microcomputers, workstations, and desk- and lap-tops). It is chips of the sort that Arm designs he says that will power this disruptive Fifth Wave of computing. In fact that's happening now.

ARM is a chip designer; its licences its chips to international maker. It is never going to be a huge company.

But it is a really important UK business with a big stake in the way global computing is evolving. And it is certainly not yet time to put it in a museum.

Listen to Chips off the Old Block (09/09/2010)

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