Museum reunion for Colossus computer veterans

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Screenshot of virtual ColossusImage source, TNMOC
Image caption,
The museum is seeking cash to turn its prototype into a fully fledged digital copy

The largest gathering of veterans who operated the Colossus code-cracking computer in World War Two has been held at Bletchley Park.

The operators met at the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) which has a replica of the pioneering machine.

It was held after publicity around Colossus's 70th anniversary led many former operators to contact the museum.

It has also revealed plans to create a virtual copy of the huts in which 6 Colossi were sited in wartime.

Digital double

In February, TNMOC celebrated 70 years since the Colossus computer attacked its first scrambled message. The machine was built to tackle the cipher system used to secure messages sent between Hitler and his generals.

Media interest in that event led to the discovery of a picture taken just after the war of many of the women who had operated Colossus. Publicity around the picture, which included an item on the BBC's The One Show, has led many more operators to come forward and contact the Museum, said a spokesman.

In total, eight women who worked on Colossus attended, two more sent messages of support and three others who wanted to come along did not make it because they were too ill to travel, he said.

Image source, Philip LeGrand
Image caption,
The discovery of a picture of Colossus operators has led many to contact the Museum

Relatives of some of the key technical staff who helped to work out how to crack the high-level messages and develop Colossus and its associated machinery were also present.

TNMOC chairman Tim Reynolds said the meeting was held in September to mark another 70th anniversary associated with Colossus - the opening of the first hut, called Block H, built to house the machines.

"It was the world's first data centre," he said.

At the reunion, TNMOC staff also talked about work it had done to create a virtual version of the two buildings that housed the Colossi - Block H and F - to give people a better idea of what it was like to be an operator during wartime.

Staff and volunteers from TNMOC have used a free tool called OpenSimulator to build a rough prototype that lets people take a virtual stroll through the huts and walk around the ranks of Colossus machines.

Chris Monk, who is leading the project, said a lot of detective work was needed to make sure the digital double was accurate.

"We do have plans, but when they built it they did not always build to the plan," he said.

In addition, he said, those who used to work with Colossus were being quizzed about the furniture and other items in the huts.

"We need the veterans for that and we need to get that information relatively quickly because of their age," he said.

TNMOC is now seeking funding to pay for a full-time worker for a year who will build the digital replica that will then become a permanent exhibit in the museum.

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