Presentations at the Vintage Computer Festival, June 2010

by WordChazer

Bletchley Park welcomed a motley and colourful crew of retro computer enthusiasts to the Vintage Computer Festival over the weekend of 19 and 20 June 2010.

Whilst ostensibly there to spend some time playing with the old equipment on show as part of The Vintage Computer Festival, and as an added bonus pay a visit to the National Museum of Computing located at the site, they were also treated to a variety of presentations, talks, question-and-answer sessions and concerts over the course of the weekend.

The photo was originally uploaded to flickr on 19 October 2008 by VoxPelli.

Organised as a counterpoint to the frenzied vintage Atari gaming going on in some areas, these presentations were broadly divided into two types, the talks given by The National Museum of Computing’s staff, repeated throughout the weekend, about the machinery they were working so hard to restore and specialist one-off presentations by the likes of Sophie Wilson (Acorn), Chris Serle (The Computer Programme), Karl Pantling-James (Retro Computer Museum) and Pixelh8 (chip tune musician).

The TNMOC staff presented in front of their respective charges, so that they could point out various knobs, dials and machine parts. These talks are covered in the first part of the review below.

Colossus – Tony Sale

Sadly now departed this earth, Tony Sale's talk was spellbinding and full of information

Tony Sale was involved with Colossus for many years and was both entertaining and knowledgeable about the machine, its rebuilding and subsequent maintenance as well as the code it was built to crack. He explained in great detail the way the code was constructed – and the mistake made by the German radio operator which led to the first breakthrough in cracking the Enigma code. He died in August 2011.

Colossus, uploaded to flickr on 1 September 2009 by Loz Flowers

His website Codes and Ciphers in the Second World War is still maintained thanks to sponsorship and continues to provide detailed information on all aspects of Colossus and cryptography, video pods of example talks, a chance to crack real Enigma codes, a potted history of codes and ciphers in World War II and of course, plenty of information on his project to rebuild Colossus. He regularly introduced visitors to his secret weapon in persuading Colossus to continue working, namely his Little Helper, a toy squirrel, and always patiently attempted to make his audience understand the logic behind the Vernam codes used by the Germans to encrypt their high-level communications.

 

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The Harwell/WITCH Dekatron Computer – Tony Frazer

The project brief for the restoration of the Harwell/Witch computerTony Frazer talked at length about the year-long restoration of this large system from the 1950s and tried in vain to make it work for the audience. Apparently it had been working perfectly well in the morning talk, but in the meantime, had developed a sticky relay and was therefore providing a very good impression of a Pixelh8 bassline.

This is a shame as it was designed to be reliable and left unattended for days. It is a true stored program computer with an array of valves and Dekatron storage tubes and operates with a series of paper tape machines similar to Colossus. After being decommissioned from Harwell it was sent to the Wolverhampton College of Technology where it was named WITCH. The Computer Conservation Society holds additional historical information on the machine and recently hosted a detailed presentation by Tony Frazer, amongst others, about it.

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The Elliott 803B – Peter Onion

Peter Onion gave an enthusiastic talk on the history of Elliott Brothers, producers of the all-singing, all-dancing Elliott 803B which he proceeded to demonstrate. This 1960s machine was popular with universities and colleges and he told the audience he remembered seeing one in his college, where it was used to teach programming.

These days this machine is used to play music most weekends and in fact was heard to give a rendition of Popcorn by Hot Butter earlier in the weekend. The programming work on the Elliott 803B was responsible for the foundation of the first software house in the United Kingdom, when their programmer Dina St Johnston founded Vaughan Programming Services in the late 1950s. She held the view that computing should be open to everyone and was considered revolutionary and formidable for that view. (Source: her obituary in Computer Resurrection Issue 41).

This was a rare chance to see these machines and an opportunity to learn first hand from their current engineers the challenges, joys and difficulties of maintaining such rare equipment.

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on 25 June 2010. It was removed at the writer's request in February 2013, and appears here with slight revision and additional photographs.

Updated: 12/25/2013, WordChazer
 
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paperfacets on 01/09/2015

Interesting. I worked in X-Bar telephone equipment that looked very similar Colossus. Three techs would keep it running. We all had different duties but one man was our super tech.
An emergency would be a malfunction that would cause a No Dial Tone for the city of Glendale, CA. Techs would start scrambling then.

WordChazer on 10/29/2013

It's a beautiful piece of engineering, ologsinquito. And here we are today, 18 of us on holiday together, all scattered around the building with our connected devices. Yet without the efforts of these early computer pioneers nothing like this would be possible.

ologsinquito on 10/28/2013

It's funny to think we now have "vintage computers." Time marches on. Colossus seems as if it's very aptly named.

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