Bletchley has a weird vibe to it. It has the weight of history to it, but doesn’t feel that old, even though the manor house dates back to the 17th Century and the site appears in the Domesday book – and was occupied back to Roman times. In some ways it feels like a school or a college campus, in others still like a military installation and layered over all of that is the museum, though it doesn’t feel so much like a museum as a more interactive/hands on.
It’s rare you can point to a particular time and place as the time and place that a new technology emerges, but Bletchley is that and a such a powerful and meaningfully influential place that you can feel it.
I’m still none the wiser as to how the Bombe works, because even the expert explanation didn’t show how the machine could understand when it got a positive result – without human intervention – but the Colossus at the neighbouring museum did make perfect sense and was incredibly impressive – especially considering it was pretty much the first fully operational computer. Even the paper-tape reader was impressive – the fastest one ever made – and its operation made far more sense (based on probability distributions).
The Computing Museum had more doodads, but less history. They run classes to teach kids to code, promote the Raspberry Pi (booo) – alternatives are available – and have a lot of big, old, working computers.
My dad was a maths teacher when home computers were just getting really popular, so I got to see a lot of older computers and to tinker around on the Acorn Atom, BBC, Spectrum and a bunch of old computers as well as to rummage in boxes of dead computer parts. I still can’t code to save my life, but I still find I know more about these things than I want to!
Bletchley is well worth a visit, but for my money the Computing Museum next door is more interesting to poke around in and look at the various artefacts of electronic history, in that nicotine-stained, yellow-beige plastic that’s always been so ubiquitous. As the spiritual home of computing, the whole area can’t help but feel special to netizens and digital kids of all ages.
Give it a shot, though Bletchley is pretty expensive to visit they force you to buy a ‘season pass’, so you can go back.
The computing museum sells Raspberrys and all kinds of casings and add-on widgets, so if you want to get hands on before you buy, it seems like a good bet.