National Museum of Computing reopens; promotes virtual tours for post-corona era

The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) is reopening its doors to visitors on 8 September, with virtual tours also a big part of its future.

Following months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Museum of Computing, based on the Bletchley Park estate near Milton Keynes, is finally reopening its doors to the public.

Recognising the changed nature of the world post-Covid – and in keeping with the spirit of a space dedicated to the celebration and preservation of cutting-edge technology through the years – the museum is also now offering virtual tours of its key exhibits for anyone who is unable to travel or is still cautious about visiting public spaces.

The virtual tours are available to members of the pulic from anywhere in the world, delivered via smartphone, tablet or computer. No download is required.

Old computer internal workings

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The free virtual tours at TNMOC offer an interactive, educational and entertaining look around the museum. The museum is also introducing paid-for live guided virtual tours for small groups conducted by their expert volunteers, who will act as informative guides, sharing detailed knowledge of some of the 50,000 artefacts housed at the facility, including such famous machines as a rebuild of Colossus and a working replica of Alan Turing’s Bombe.

Undertaking a virtual tour, visitors from around the world can explore the history of modern computing. The new virtual experience – whether unguided or with one of the museum’s experts for a live, virtual tour – is designed to help people connect with and experience the collection and explore the artefacts.

Highlights of the virtual tour, which walks visitors chronologically through the museum, cover the 1940s and the computers that helped win the Second World War (Colossus; Turing’s Bombe); the first commercial computers of the 1950s (including the the 2.5 tonne Harwell Dekatron/WITCH which employed vacuum tubes as a precursor to modern computer memory); gigantic room-sized mainframe computers (some of the first to use transistors, which made them reliable and capable of being mass-produced), and the PC gallery (home to the generation of systems that sparked the buiness and home and revolutions, featuring such iconic machines as Sinclair, Amstrad, Acorn, Apple and Commodore).

Home computer collection

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Any tour through the museum reveals fascinating statistics about the carefully restored exhibits and comparisons with modern technology. The example of a Cray supercomputer held at the museum cost around $8m in 1977 (equivalent to $33.3m in 2019), took 115kW to run and weighed 5.5 tons – yet only had the same computing power as an iPhone 4S. In a similar vein, the ICL 2966 cost £3m in 1985 and its new owners could enjoy a mammoth 8Gb in storage – huge for the time, but considerably less than your average smartphone today.

Meanwhile, the WITCH – the world’s oldest working digital computer – would take 16 times the life of the Universe to mine a single Bitcoin today and even then wouldn’t have enough RAM to store it. It would also take the WITCH (whose full name is the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell) approximately 27 years just to start up Minecraft, never mind actually run it.

However, the old machines still retain their capacity to surprise and inspire awe. For example, to test all the possible combinations of the Enigma machine – allowing one per second – you would have needed to start the process shortly after the Big Bang and the origins of the Universe, while the number of theoretical settings on the Lorenz machine is equivalent to the number of visible atoms in the Universe, squared.

Mainframe computers

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All of these legendary machines and more can be seen in the virtual tour, enabling anyone to enjoy and learn more about the history of computing. Moving around the new virtual museum is straightforward: visitors can click on pop-up displays that outline the stories and key facts about the machines and other artefacts on display. Visitors can also follow embedded links for additional information online.

Created in association with Venue View Virtual Tours and interpretation specialist Blended Past, the virtual tour can be accessed on desktop computer (naturally), tablet, smartphone and even using a virtual reality headset. The tour is interactive and features many images, videos and documents.

The virtual tour has been made possible courtesy of funding from the Milton Keynes Community Foundation’s Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund.

TNMOC chairman Dr Andrew Herbert said, “The Coronavirus pandemic and the necessary restrictions are making us think in new ways about displaying our story of computing to the public. The 3D virtual and live curated tours are helping us stay connected and also to breakthrough to reach new audiences, which is especially important during this pandemic.”

Keith McMahon, managing director of Venue View virtual tours, said, “The National Museum of Computing has joined some of the most innovative museums from the Tate Modern, HMS Belfast and the Churchill War Rooms in delivering a 3D tour of its facilities. TNMOC provides people the opportunity to explore via the screen of their choice and the interactive nature of the tour means there is something for everyone.”

Free TNMOC virtual tour

Book a guided virtual tour

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