News from The Kings of Wessex Academy

Shhh! Computing Students on Top Secret Trip to...

4th October, 2017 by Josh, The Kings and Queens News Team

An early 6am start for 11 Kings’ Sixth Form Computing students, for today was no normal day of education, today we were embarking on a trip to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. The bus trip was sparsely eventful, except for a game of eye spy, a few wrong turnings and a stop at a service station. But finally we had arrived.

A warm welcome from all the staff at the museum and we were invited inside. Walking down corridors full of ancient relics, like the typewriters and mechanical calculators, we were taken to a small room where we had a brief talk about the history of technology and then a game where two sides of the room had to encrypt a message and the other side decode it.

Next came the tour of the museum, we started off in a room full of desks and a big radio receiver, this is where the allied forces would receive and decode messages from the enemy manually; until they started using a new encryption, something new that nobody understood. This was a problem. Decoding the messages was a huge task and it was only when a Nazi officer sent a 4000 character message to another operator who received it and replied “I didn’t get that” that we had a chance of decoding it; because rather than type 4000 characters out again the Lorenz machine was set into the same position and the same message sent, except there were abbreviations of words, which meant we could spot patterns and decode it and we may not have won the war if we hadn’t.

At last we knew what this machine did, but we didn’t know how it worked; so a man called Bill Tutte started trying to work this out, finally he and his research team created a logical structure of the Lorenz cipher machine they were trying so hard to crack. The Allied Forces created their own “Lorenz” called the Tully, frustratingly the allied codebreakers still had to laboriously work out the settings for specific messages. But when they did, it was plugged into the Tully and if they had got it correct we could receive a German message. Unfortunately finding these settings proved more than a challenge and it could take anywhere between four to six weeks to decode them and by that time any information the message provided was operationally useless. So soon they had created the first programable, electronic and digital computer, colossus. This machine was an incredible feat of engineering for the time, it could find the settings for the Lorenz cipher in a matter of hours, much better than the weeks of manually working out the settings, and this completely changed the tide of war for the allied troops and is definitely a very important part of computing history.

After the colossus we walked through years of computing which included a rather extravagant calculator called the WITCH that was used to calculate massive numbers for nuclear calculations that helped push our country forwards in nuclear technology. We saw huge data storage disks, which could have contained enough data nowadays to fit on the tip of your finger! The museum also has several projects which are under construction, replicas of previous computers from the 1960s and beyond. The entire museum is littered with information about computers and the actual models, there is even an entire area dedicated to vintage gaming with an Atari and a space invaders booth!

After the tour of the museum we proceeded to a room where we had our lunch and chatted about the tour. This was then followed by a small debate about AI and how it helps us and could possibly be a danger to us; which prompted us to create our own chat bot that we could try to get to convince other people is not a robot and hence passing the Turing test. This was very hard and gave me a newfound appreciation for the people who create these programmes as to try and pass the Turing test it is incredibly hard to try and make a machine sound natural and like a person. Amazingly someone passing this test is on the horizon for the next 10 or so years. So AI is an interesting area of computing to watch out for.

After this activity we proceeded into the adjacent room where there were some BBC computers, which gave all of us a taste of what coding in the 1980s was like. A very different experience. Everyone coded snaked and there was an intense competition (students and teachers involved) to see who could stay alive the longest so we could make the leader board. This proved a much more difficult task than expected and the highest we reached was into the 300s boundary compared to the top scores of about 1300! After this, much to our dismay it was time to head back. This time the highlight being a 20-minute stop at the services and a KFC which was well deserved after a day of walking, coding and snaking!

Overall, this was a wonderful insight into the technology of the last 60 years, how it has changed and evolved into what we know today. It is a trip I would recommend to the lower years when you are in the Sixth Form and take Computing and get the opportunity to go.

By Josh, The Kings and Queens News Team