Our day at the National Museum of Computing started with an introductory talk setting the historical context of WW2, cryptology and the history of computing and introducing mathematical concepts. It also including interesting facts such as why the layout of the huts are based on corridors with rooms off them (so that you just go directly to your room). At various points, objects such as an early calculator were handed around for the students to hold and examine.
We then split into our two sub-groups (based on age). These sub-groups had been arranged in advance to save time.
One guide took us to see the Harwell Dekatron Computer (also known as WITCH), the world's oldest original working computer. We were able to appreciate just how far computing has progressed when we saw it in action.
We then swapped guides and our second guide showed us Colossus, which is the world's first programmable electronic computer. It was this computer that helped to decipher the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals in World War II.
After a half hour lunch, one group was shown some mainframe computers and taken on a journey of computing history from the post war period to the present day.
We then swapped guides again and spent the last part of the day in their classroom for a hands-on workshop. This is equipped with 15 BBC micro computers, which will bring back memories for any adult who remembers spending hours typing lines of BASIC into a computer in the 1980s, have it fail and then spend nearly as long again trying to debug.
During this session, students had to input a 21 line code into a BBC microcomputer, to produce a "snake" game and then modify it afterwards. The absence of "copy and paste" was disconcerting for some students, as was the method for correcting errors - which was just to re-type the line.
It may seem strange to use BBC computers from the 1980s but the advantages are that the students really do have to go back to "first principles." Additionally, since they run slower, you can often actually see the computer processing the instructions. There are also no distractions, due to the absence of the internet and other programs.
The day was a fabulous mix of modern world history (particularly WW2), computing and mathematics. The two guides, Sheridan and Rob were extremely knowledgeable. Their enthusiasm was infectious and it gave the tour its edge. It was evident from their talks that both were genuinely interested in the subject matter. The teens were pleasantly surprised (even the ones who didn't much like coding) and the younger ones also retained a surprising amount of information. All four sections of the day were extremely well thought out and presented.
All sections of the day were nicely pitched at an intelligent level. The delivery was at times humorous and always insightful. The various practical demonstrations and physical objects to see and handle were varied and relevant to the content. The content was original and smoothly tied several subjects together. It also went beyond the national curriculum and was all the better for it.
Their website suggests age 10yrs+ and I would agree, even though younger children will be able to do the hands-on workshop, taking the day as a whole, older children would better appreciate the historical context and the mathematics as well as the computing aspects of the tour.
The National Museum of Computing is housed in Block H, one of the original huts in Bletchley Park but is separate from the rest of the site. It was built in the summer of 1944 originally to house Colossus computers. More recently it has been renovated and updated to convert it to showcase computing history.
The National Museum of Computing is an independent charity and it houses the largest collection of functioning vintage computers in Europe. However, despite its collection of computers, it is very much a museum of computing and is still evolving. It has roughly 40 volunteers who do everything from restore computers to guide visitors.
We took a group of 30 people (including accompanying adults) divided into two age groups: 9-12 and 12-15yrs. The Museum provided two guides (one per 15 people) At the time of our visit, the pricing structure was a fixed minimum fee plus a cost per person. This equated to £10 per person. However, since our visit, their prices have increased slightly. Accompanying adults are encouraged to actively participate in the tour and workshops.
The National Museum of Computing is open to the general public and guided tours are available but need to be pre-booked. Some galleries are not open at all times. Check their website for exact opening times and tour times.
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