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Google: celebrating the UK's computing heritage

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:37

On 1 July I attended an event at one of Google's offices in London to celebrate the UK's computing heritage.   The event was in five parts.  The first was a panel discussion about the very early days of the internet. This was followed by the screening of a short film, a presentation by Tilly Blyth about the Science Museum, some information about the national computing museum and the reconstruction of a computer called EDSAC, followed by a closing Q&A session.

I was immediately struck by the names of some of the speakers; people who were and continue to be fundamental pioneers of the internet.  During the event I made quite a few notes, only to later discover that the parts of the evening had been recorded and made available on YouTube.  So, if you're interested, do go and visit the links that are featured in this quick blog.  They're certainly worth a look.

The history of the internet

The first session, a panel discussion, comprised of Roger Scantlebury and Peter Wilkinson, from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Peter Kirstein (Wikipedia) from UCL, University of London, and Vint Cerf (Wikipedia) from Google.    You can view this really interesting discussion by going to the video recording on YouTube.

For sake of completeness, however, I'm also going to leave you with some of my edited notes which more or less reflect the bits that piqued my interest.  There were occasions where that I became so engrossed in the discussions that I forgot to take notes!  So they are, by necessity, very course and incomplete.  I recommend the video over than my notes.

 As soon as the discussion started, I started to remember stuff that I had read in various histories of the internet.  Donald Davies, who worked at NPL initiated a project that had intended to be national in scope - in some ways, similar to the Arpanet.    NPL has played an important role in the history of computing (and the internet).  Alan Turing moved to NPL to work on the ACE computer (Wikipedia), after spending time at Bletchley Park and working on voice scrambling systems.  This led to the development of the English Electric DEUCE computer (Wikipedia).

As an aside, I was really interested to learn that the NPL chose to make use of a Honeywell DPP-516  (Wikipedia) as the basis for some of their networking designs.  This happens to be the same machine that was used as an Internet Message Processor (Wikipedia) in the Arpanet project.  (It also turns out that the contractor that developed the IMP, BBN, visited NPL - interesting stuff!)

Peter Kirstein spoke about how he and how UCL became involved.  Politics, of course, proved to be a fundamental issue.  ARPANet was connected to a seismic array based in Norway called NORSAR which could be used to detect soviet nuclear tests.  Vint Cerf made some really interesting points - that the challenges were mostly bureaucratic ones rather than about technology.  Getting people to communicate is harder.  Like I said: the video is better than my notes!

LEO: Lyons Electronic Office

I've known of the LEO computer for a very long time, but it isn't a machine that I know too much about.  Google has sponsored the making of a film to celebrate the the LEO computer (YouTube), which is certainly.  I was very surprised to see a number of the participants in the film in the audience.  The underlined how recent this history is, and how phenomenally quickly technology continues to move.

Science Museum: Information age gallery

Tilly Blyth, from the Science Museum, London, spoke about the development of a new 'information age' gallery.  The aim of the gallery is to celebrate last two hundred years of communication and information technologies (I hope I've got this right!)  Tilly described its narrative approach; the museum has chosen twenty one different stories.  (I've made a note of a four)

The first is an exhibit of the last manual telephone exchange that was used in the country.  This physical artefact has the power to not only convey changes in technology but also the changes in work practices.  Another exhibit relates to the LEO computer, which I'm sure will be both interesting and enchanting in equal measure.

Some current technologies have their own interesting histories.  There's also going to be an exhibit about the global positioning system.  Commerce and information can now be more readily connected to physical locations.  I was reminded of these new apps where you can hail a taxi by pressing a button on your phone.

The final teaser was a mention of an exhibit that related to how technology was consumed and used in developing countries, such as Cameroon.  We can so easily get wrapped up in our own worldview that we can easily forget that information and communications technology has a global impact.  We were told that the museum was working with an anthropologist with a view to trying to understand how devices are used in different cultures.

I've taken a note of the phrase, 'stories of contrast'.  I'm looking forward to its opening.

EDSAC Reconstruction

David Hartley, the director of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park spoke about the history of the museum.  David spoke about significant machines, such as the Harwell Dekatron computer and the Colossus reconstruction. He also touched upon the role of the British Computer Conservation Society emphasising its importance by saying that 'there is nothing so boring as a dead computer'.  David also mentioned that there were parallel cultures to the museum; one that related to the more traditional role of a museum and one that related to machine reconstruction (and preservation).

The second film of the day was entitled EDSAC - A cultural shift in computing (YouTube).  This video described a project to rebuild a historic computer.  It's certainly worth a look if you're interested.

Closing session

The opening question, to Vint, was 'did you have the notion that the internet would change the world?  What were you trying to achieve in those days?'  Vint spoke about a range of different things, and mentioned Douglas Englebart's mother of all demos  (YouTube) and other influences.   Vint also speaks about IPv6, space travel, the history of TCP/IP and ubiquitous computing.  The question and answer session has also been recorded (YouTube).   Some really great questions!

Reflections

One thing that struck me was how many people attended the event.  I was amazed!  Another thought is that it really did feel like a celebration.  I was also amazed to see some of the people who featured in the films that were screened sitting in the audience.  This reminded me of how close we are to our own history, and also how we are all wrapped up in it too. 

When we're in the middle of change we can't easily see the rate that it is happening.  Events such as this one helps us to step back and realise how far we've come in such a phenomenally short time.  A really good point was that whilst the technology is, in its own right, pretty interesting - it's the human structures and the politics that have to be negotiated to really allow things to be work.  Arguably, these represent the tougher challenges.

We have a reflexive relationship with technology.  We make technology by working with people.  When we've made something, technology has a potential to change us too.  An implicit challenge that each of us face is to understand and acknowledging the extent of these changes.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Patricia Stammers, Thursday, 18 Jul 2013, 10:28)
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