A Fine Collection

I’ve recently returned from a short holiday in London where I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Science Museum in South Kensington.  This was my third visit to the Museum but the previous two visits were hurried attempts to cover the entire Museum as quickly as possible so this was my first opportunity to take my time and concentrate on examining the Museum’s fine collection of computer-related exhibits in the Computing Gallery.

The highlight of the collection is probably the full-scale replica of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 which contains over 8,000 components and weighs 5 tonnes.  Seeing this mechanical marvel up close really brings home the astonishing achievements made by Babbage more than a century before the birth of the computer industry.  Other Babbage items on display include the trial model and some of the engineering drawings for the Analytical Engine, Babbage’s general-purpose programmable calculating machine which was never built.  These provide a poignant reminder of a lost opportunity and food for thought on how much more advanced computer technology would have been had Babbage succeeded in completing this incredible machine.

Jesse Ramsden's Circular Dividing EngineI was pleasantly surprised to see one of Jesse Ramsden’s circular dividing engines on display.  Ramsden’s work on scientific instruments and machine tools in the 1770s led to major advances in precision engineering.  These advances not only allowed Babbage to create the intricate mechanisms for his Engines but they also provided the foundation for the successful mass production of mechanical calculating machines in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Museum’s collection does an excellent job of covering the mechanical and electromechanical eras and it was reassuring to see analogue computing well represented.  The electronic age is less well represented, however, with only a handful of medium and large scale electronic computers on display.  I’m aware that the Museum has many more items in storage than it can possibly display in the space available but it would be good to see a few more examples of electronic computers from recent times.

Unlike many of London’s tourist attractions, entry to the Science Museum is free.  Despite visiting at the height of the tourist season, there were no long queues at the doors, possibly as a result of stiff competition from the Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum which are both located in the same area.  If you are ever in South Kensington and have an hour or two to spare, I would highly recommend a visit.  If not, you could try reading Chapter 1 of my book which covers the work of Jesse Ramsden and Charles Babbage.


History in the Making

Earlier this week I attended a conference on the history of computing held at the Science Museum in London.  The conference was entitled Making the History of Computing Relevant and was organised by the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) in conjunction with the Science Museum and the Computer Conservation Society.

Conference1This was the first event of its kind to be held in the UK for several years and attracted participants from all over the country plus a large contingent of overseas visitors from as far afield as Australia, Japan and Hawaii.  The main theme of the conference was exploring what could be done to make the history of computing relevant and interesting to the general public.  The programme featured 28 presentations spread over 2 days.  These were structured into a number of sub-themes, each of which included a generous allocation of time for questions and discussion.

The presentations were uniformly excellent but the two stand out ones for me were ‘The Voice of the Machine’ by Dr Tom Lean and ‘Reconstruction of Konrad Zuse’s Z3’ by Dr Horst Zuse:-

  • Dr Lean’s presentation featured video and audio clips of interviews with some of the pioneers of computing in the UK which he has been gathering as part of the British Library’s ‘Voices of Science’ oral history project.  Listening to these fascinating clips gave the subject matter a more human dimension which should certainly help in making the history of computing more compelling to a non-technical audience.
  • Dr Zuse’s presentation was a hilarious account of his efforts to build a replica of the legendary Z3 electromechanical computer developed by his father in 1941.  It included clips from a video diary Dr Zuse had kept on the project, featuring such comic scenes as DHL couriers struggling to deliver heavy boxes containing thousands of electromagnetic relays to Dr Zuse’s top floor flat.  It was by far the funniest conference presentation I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

Conference2A reception was held in the Science Museum’s Alan Turing exhibition on the evening of Day 1.  This only added to the general air of conviviality and shared enthusiasm for the subject which permeated the whole event, although there was one moment of heated debate on Day 2 regarding whether museums should make more of an effort to give working demonstrations of their exhibits in situations where the equipment is still in working order.

I was also struck by the number of septuagenarian delegates sporting the latest smartphones, tablets and laptops and who were clearly much more skilled at using them than I am.  Proof perhaps of the adage “once a computer geek, always a computer geek“?

I am indebted to Google for sponsoring the conference, without which I probably could not have afforded to attend, as the delegate fees for conferences of this quality are usually several hundred pounds.  Thanks also to Dr Tilly Blyth (pictured above) and her team from the Science Museum for organising such an enjoyable and well run event.  Hopefully, the programme committee will decide to make this a regular event.  I’m already looking forward to attending the next one!