Bletchley given £57,000 donation

A bid to save Britain’s computing heritage has been given a $100,000 (£57,000) boost by a joint donation from US hi-tech firms IBM and PGP.

The donation will help curate and restore exhibits at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, Bucks.

The two firms said they hoped the money would kick-start further donations from the technology industry to make up an estimated £7m needed to run the museum.

Exhibits include Colossus, thought by many to be the world’s first computer.

Andrew Hart, head of privacy and security services for IBM in the UK and Ireland, told the BBC that the technology held at Bletchley was a crucial part of the UK’s national heritage.

Discarded as irrelevant

“It’s an important part not only of computing, but of cryptology and analysis,” he said. “We’re getting involved to help preserve what is a fundamental part of our history.”

He said there was a danger that with the fast-paced nature of the computer industry, it would lose a sense of its origins by constantly discarding as irrelevant any technology that became outdated.

He said: “I think it’s very important to act to preserve this because a lot of people think this equipment is obsolete, so a lot of this material is being lost and destroyed at an incredible rate.

“If we took that approach to the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum in London, we would probably throw our hands up and say that approach is crazy.”

He added that the museum would also help engage new generations in the next stage of technological evolution by encouraging them not to take computers for granted.

He said: “Take something like the internet, which for many people is really extraordinary, the internet was really only invented in 1989, and here we are in 2008 and it’s almost as if it has never not been there – it surrounds us.”

For Phillip Dunkelberger, president and chief executive officer of data protection specialist PGP Corporation, seminal work in cryptology had been done at Bletchley – famous as the site where the Enigma code was cracked during WWII.

He also said there were important lessons learnt about the power of public-private partnerships to solve seemingly intractable problems.

He told the BBC: “I think that the people who set out to do their work every day, I don’t think they set out to change the world by building the mainframe computer. And really they did it for the greater good.

“Ultimately we would like to see it considered the first home. If you come to San Jose, we have the San Jose tech museum. I think it very easily could be the English equivalent.”

Andy Clark, a director and a trustee at the museum, said he was thrilled by the donation.

He told the BBC: “This is a kick-start, these guys are really helping us out by getting us the support of the technology community really for the first time.”

He said of the £7m the museum hoped to raise, about £1m would go towards restoration and curation and the rest would be entrusted to a fund to allow the museum to run without charging an entrance fee.

Code-cracking centre

He said the British Computer Society had donated £75,000 and about £50,000 had come through personal donations.

He also emphasised that the museum was of computing, not computers, and that education was at the heart of its agenda.

He told the BBC: “It’s where things happen – it’s important that people can do things. To be physically engaged with the artefacts really puts the whole thing in context.

“You see that with kids, they stand in front of the Colossus and I say to them, do you realise this is a computer? And they say, ‘it’s very big!’, and it catches their imagination.”

The contribution by PGP Corporation and computer giant IBM, follows a campaign by the museum launched by a competition challenging volunteers to crack one of the toughest codes of WWII.

In July about 100 academics signed a letter to The Times saying the code-cracking centre, and crucible of the UK computer industry, was being allowed to fall into decay.

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