Colussus

A ds106 communal postcard from Britian 🙂

I received the above postcard from the U.K. this past Friday, which was appropriate given it came the same day I was informed the Internet Course would be running during the first summer session—a week from today ! I was sure this class wouldn’t fly given there were only three students signed up since March, but it seems there was a last minute surge and it got approved. I’m actually thinking the next five weeks might warrant an in-depth exploration into the history of the internet with this group. I’ve been moving in that direction anyway during the Spring semester, but this awesome postcard from Vivien Rolfe, David Kernohan, Talky Tina?, and Alan Levine seals it. The scene in the postcard capturing the delivery of “Colussus” the Elliott 405. The museum is also home to a rebuilt Colussus, the world’s first programmable computer. It is pretty awesome—the digital in 1940s England seems so antithetical somehow—very paleoconnectivist, if you will . Here’s a nice bit from Wikipedia about the Colussus:

Colossus was the world’s first electronic digital computer that was at all programmable. The Colossus computers were developed for British codebreakers during World War II to help in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. Without them, the Allies would have been deprived of the very valuable military intelligence that was obtained from reading the vast quantity of encrypted high-level telegraphic messages between the German High Command (OKW) and their army commands throughout occupied Europe. Colossus used thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) to perform Boolean operations and calculations.

Vacuum tubes for Boolean operations and calculations?! The “Boolean Vacuums” would be a great band name. I love this stuff, and this postcard made my weekend. I was impatiently waiting to scan it so I could share the love as far and wide as possible. Old gold computer history #4life!

The National Museum of Computing is now very high on my list of palces to visit worldwide, and I am wondering if we have something like it the States? I can’t really think of anything in D.C.? Anything similar come to mind where the national history of US computing is narrated and curated in physical space?

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22 Responses to Colussus

  1. dkernohan says:

    Hi Jim – the computer being delivered was in fact an Elliot 405 which looks a bit like this. This was one of the first mainstream computers used by non-specialists, and I know you’ll love this video.

    Colossus never left Bletchley Park as it was top secret, and only ever used to decode ciphered German transmissions during WW2.

    • Reverend says:

      David,
      Thanks for the clarification, if I could only read 🙂 I tried to edit the post as seamlessly as possible while noting my original blunder. THat museum looks brilliant, bummed I couldn’t be there first hand to see it for myself.

  2. That was fast! We were planning to write the names of DTLTers on the card but had pen failure. Some photos of the day https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/tags/tnmoc

    I am pretty sure the IBM 1130 was the one I learned FORTRAN on in highschool. What was truly special was the passion and the teaching of the people working there, I am sure as volunteers.

    The Colussus story is impressive, but maybe more so is the Decatron, the oldest digital computer still working. The book David and I both bought “Electronic Brains” is a brilliant read (well 3 chapters in) on the history of the computer http://www.electronicbrains.info/ It is worth a blog post– it shares a location with the Bletchley Park museum which is focussed more on the code breaking effort, but the National Computing Museum is like the little kid who gets no respect, the crowds seem to go right for the bigger, more well funded museum.

    I would strongly recommend the NSA Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade (http://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic_heritage/museum/) it’s more on the use of computers in spying and war, but they do have a working demo of an Enigma machine.

    • Reverend says:

      Alan,
      Those images are beautiful, and that museum seems awesome. Thanks for the link to Electronic Brains, I’m gonna see if I can pick a copy up before next week. Alos, the National Cryptographic Museum is right up the road in maryland, that might make for a very good field trip this summer, you are just full of gifts, dog! Hope your time in England has been a balst, and from your company, not to mention its impact on your Twitter and Flickr stream, it would be hard to imagine otherwise!

  3. The fanatical thing about Colossus was they did the rebuild without having much information beyond photos and knowledge it was made from parts used by the Post Office for automation. The government wanted to make sure the secrets did not escape, but people have a way of getting around that.

  4. scottlo says:

    Might wanna include some Peter Lamborn Wilson for extra-credit:

    http://hermetic.com/bey/pw-neurospc.html

    • Reverend says:

      Funny you should link to this, after reading that article it reminded me of the 1966 Fantastic Voyage film, talking about inner space as infinite, not unlike outer space. That mapped on nueral and cyber space opens up a “fourth dimension” of sorts. You just made my next post that much more interesting 😉

    • Bonus points for a Hakim Bey ref!

  5. dkernohan says:

    And to note Viv Rolfe has both gifs and stories from the day.

    Would recommend the museum to anyone. It’s just down the road from the UK Open University

  6. Reverend says:

    Man, Viv’s Colosus GIF is amazing, and her post gives me an idea for reframing the first day of the summer class. So good, thank you for pointing me to that. You rule!

  7. iamTalkyTina says:

    Well, it is interesting to see this because I did some special contract work then when they were trying to hook it up and the guys couldn’t reach all the way in the back to plug in all the parts but I could. Plus, getting out all the bugs. I still have fond memories of the smell of lightly warmed over spider and fly parts in the morning.

    I will look and see if I can find any of my old photos of it. I know my old (not my current) Official Secrets Act papers should allow me to share them for histerical purposes. Plus, historical.

    Well, bye!

  8. Michael Berman says:

    Road trip to Mountain View when you’re in California?

    • Reverend says:

      Bryan,
      I think Zach Whalen talked to me about this film a few years back and it looked awesome, basically a b-roll Fail Safe where the computer is the bad guy. I have to check with him on Twitter, but you rule, as always—thank you for shopping and sharing on the bava. We love you 🙂

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