Bletchley Park’s rebirth and why it matters

Twenty five years ago, Bletchley Park was facing demolition. Last month’s opening of the newly restored Block C by the Duchess of Cambridge — including the discovery that her grandmother Valerie Glassborow had worked as a duty officer and managed the interception of enemy signals for decryption at Bletchley — cements its reversal of fortune.

Photos copyright Shaun Armstrong

Now reborn as one of England’s most evocative museums, Bletchley Park is a fitting place of pilgrimage for both history and technology fans alike. The extraordinary code-breaking feats that took place in its spartan wooden huts were crucial to the Allied victory, and helped lay the foundations for the computer age. We were honoured to have been invited to create this new film for the visitors centre:

Bletchley Park is where Alan Turing’s theories were first put into practice, in the Bombe machines used to break Enigma, operated by women like 93 year old veteran and grandmother of one of our colleagues in Google London, Jean Valentine. It was also home to Colossus, the world’s first electronic programmable computer.

As important as what was achieved at Bletchley Park are the lessons we can learn from the way it was done.

Bletchley Park was a melting pot of brilliant minds set free by an atmosphere of tolerance. Societal norms were swept aside because of extreme need and circumstances. What mattered was what a person could do — not their gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin or any supposed eccentricity. By removing these artificial constraints, Bletchley Park brought out the best in the fullest range of talent.

In this sense, Bletchley’s codebreaking success came not in spite of people’s differences, but because of them. It’s a compelling role model for the power of diversity that resonates still today.

Overall, at Bletchley Park thousands of talented people, more than half women, made heroic contributions that were kept secret until the 1970s. To borrow Keira Knightley’s line playing code breaker Joan Clarke in upcoming movie “The Imitation Game”: “Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.”

Google has long championed saving Bletchley Park together with Dr. Sue Black, Stephen Fry, Sir John Scarlett and many others. We’ve donated money, hosted events, created videos to help preserve and promote its story, including this . But nothing beats the experience of visiting this hallowed place in person — it’s just 45 minutes by train from London Euston — do go if you can. We promise you will be inspired by these technical heroes and early founders of our industry.

Posted by Lynette Webb and Megan Smith, Google
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Inspiring students about Poland’s great computing heritage

Behind every computing breakthrough, there’s a story of the people who made it happen. Earlier this month, the spotlight shone on Poland’s computer pioneers with the launch of the educational project “XYZ — The history of computing in Poland”.

Led by the Center for Citizenship Education in collaboration with Google, the project seeks to raise awareness of Poland’s computing heroes among young people, as well as use them to illustrate the value of virtues such as ingenuity, curiosity and cooperation.

Materials produced so far include a timline, online videos, and posters highlighting key Poles and their achievements — from Abraham Stern’s mechanical calculators in the early 19th century, to Leon Lukaszewicz’s XYZ computer in 1958, to the team who built the K-202, Poland’s first computer with integrated circuits, in the 1970s. Coming soon are lesson plans and contests to make it easier for Polish educators to use these stories of local innovators to inspire their students.

The project was launched in fitting style at the University of Warsaw, where young innovators showcased their own work surrounded by posters of Polish computing heroes to dignitaries including Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers” of the Internet.

Students meet “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf

We’re proud to support this initiative and hope it helps inspire the next generation of Polish computer scientists to similarly great heights.

Posted by Marta Poslad, Senior Policy Analyst, Central and Eastern Europe
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An unusual meeting of minds in Belgium

It will be a special moment when one of the “fathers’ of the Internet meets some of the “grandfathers.” This evening, Vint Cerf, who helped pioneer the Internet’s original protocol in the 1980s, will travel to Mons in Belgium for a event celebrating the Mundaneum. Click below to enjoy live streaming of the event from the Manege Theater.

More than a century ago, two visionary Belgians envisioned the World Wide Web’s architecture of hyperlinks and indexation of information, not on computers, but on paper cards. Their creation was called the Mundaneum. Two years ago, Google struck a partnership with the Mundaneum to support the archive’s exhibitions, conferences, and other activities. Since then, the relationship has bloomed. A Google data centre is located near Mons and the Mundaneum has become a key partner in working with us to dig deep roots in the region.

As demand for our products grows, we’re investing hundreds of millions of Euros in expanding our European data centres. According to the the Wallonia Agency for Foreign Investment, our EUR550 million investment makes us one of Belgium’s largest investors. A data center is about more than just bricks, mortar and servers, too. Its about jobs. All of our open positions can be found on Google Jobs page for positions in Belgium.

In Mons, Vint will meet local web entrepreneurs in town, at the local Beaux-Arts Mons museum, which is featuring an Andy Warhol exhibition. Google is supporting the exhibition’s online activities.

On Tuedsay Vint will travel to Ghent for a repeat performance at the Minard Theater. We also have deep roots in Ghent. The Ghent University’s library owns a linguistic treasure trove of centuries-old books in English, French, German and Dutch. As a Google book partner, we have scanned more than 200,000 of the library’s out of copyright works. Works that once were relegated to hard-to-reach library shelves and received only an occasional reader now get more than than 100,000 views each day on the Net. That’s quite an achievement for a father of the Internet to celebrate.

Posted by William Echikson, Head of Data Centre Community Relations, Europe.
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An Austrian star of European computing

Google started as a graduate school project. So it’s apt that the next film in our computing heritage series pays homage to the work of another student team, nearly 60 years ago in Austria.

In the mid 1950’s, computer design was in the midst of a major transition, going from vacuum tubes to transistors. Transistors performed a similar function electronically, but generated less heat and were a fraction of the size, allowing machines to be made that were both smaller and more powerful.

Heinz Zemanek, then an assistant professor at the Vienna University of Technology, had long been interested in computers. In 1956, he enlisted a team of students to build one based on this new transistor technology.

Zemanek’s project didn’t have university backing, so the team relied on donations. One student’s work was sponsored by Konrad Zuse, the German computer pioneer, on the understanding he would join Zuse’s company after completing his doctorate. Additional money came from an Austrian bankers association, thanks to connections Zemanek had made through his role leading Austria’s Boy Scouts. Overall more than 35 companies contributed materials, in particular Philips, who donated all the transistors and diodes. The only drawback was the transistors were relatively slow, originally designed for hearing aids.

At the time, leading U.S. machines were named after types of wind, such as MIT’s Whirlwind and RCA Laboratory’s Typhoon. In a gentle nod to this, Zemanek nicknamed his computer Mailüfterl, meaning “May Breeze.” As he joked (PDF): “We are not going to produce… any of those big American storms, but we will have a very nice little Viennese spring breeze!”

On May 27, 1958 the Mailüfterl ran its first calculation and became mainland Europe’s first fully transistorized computer—and one of the earliest in the world. It remained at the university for its first few years, financed in part by the European Research Office of the American Army. In 1960 Zemanek signed a contract with IBM, and in September 1961 the Mailüfterl was moved to a new research laboratory in Vienna that IBM created for Zemanek and his team.

Today the Mailüfterl is on display at the Technical Museum in Vienna—a fitting reminder of Austria’s time at the vanguard of European computing.

Posted by Wolfgang Fasching-Kapfenberger, Communications & Public Affairs Manager, Austria

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Afternoon tea with computing’s heroines—and a new gallery showcasing their work

Last Saturday saw a special gathering at Bletchley Park to showcase the contributions of women to computing. We were joined in person by some of the UK’s female pioneers—including Margaret Bullen who did the wiring and soldering for Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer; Sophie Wilson who co-designed the ARM processor, found in almost every mobile phone and tablet; and Dame Stephanie Shirley who founded Freelance Programmers, one of the UK’s earliest software startups.

Photos thanks to Shaun Armstrong (copyright Mubsta.com) and James Martin

The afternoon got into full swing with a presentation applauding the pioneers present and the announcement of a new Google sponsored gallery at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC). The gallery aims to highlight the achievements and roles played by women as visionaries, engineers, entrepreneurs, programmers and more. It was aptly launched with a speech by Dame Stephanie Shirley speaking via hangout from the new Gallery.

Afterwards, people were free to enjoy tours of Bletchley Park, guided by some of the original ‘Wrens’ stationed there during the war, and to visit TNMOC where they could see the new gallery as well as many other exhibits, and even get hands on and learn to solder!

Photos thanks to TNMOC and James Martin

Bletchley’s Mansion was also decked out for the event with posters highlighting 20 women from the UK and beyond who have made groundbreaking contributions to computing—among them, Dina St Johnston, Grace Hopper, Kateryna Yushchenko, Karen Sparck Jones, Barbara Liskov, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, Hedy Lamarr, and many more, not least Ada Lovelace who started it all. Other exhibits included displays by those working to encourage young people to get interested in computing, including CAS #include, Technology Will Save Us and Apps For Good.

Photos thanks to Shaun Armstrong (copyright Mubsta.com)

Overall, it was a splendid day and a chance to shine a light on some of those whose contributions are often overlooked. And this is just the beginning. Thanks to the digital touch screens installed in the new gallery, the displays will evolve and expand as more stories are found. Do get in touch if you have an idea or would like to contribute. We’re keen for this to be an inspiring resource for all visitors—especially for girls curious about computing’s opportunities.

Posted by Lynette Webb, Senior Manager, External Relations
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Four women share stories from UK computing’s early days

So far, with rare exception, the focus of our computing history series has been on technology—the machines that broke new ground and the people behind them.

This time we’re approaching it from a different angle, with the release of short films highlighting the stories of four women. By luck or design, all found themselves working at the forefront of the UK’s computing industry in its earliest stages, and it was fascinating to hear their diverse experiences.

In three clips from past interviews, Joyce Wheeler and Margaret Marrs talk about their time using EDSAC at Cambridge, and Mary Coombs tells of programming LEO, the world’s first business computer. And in a fourth brand new film, Dame Stephanie Shirley shares her extraordinary tale of founding Freelance Programmers, one of the UK’s first software startups.

Launched in 1962, Freelance Programmers wasn’t the UK’s first independent software company—that honour goes to Vaughan Programming Services founded by another pioneering woman, Dina St Johnston, in 1959.

What made Dame Stephanie’s company stand out however was its unusual business model, dedicated to employing women programmers working part-time from home. In an era when women were routinely expected to leave the workforce upon marriage, this was a bold move. Against all odds, Dame Stephanie—or “Steve” as she signed her business letters—dramatically overcame the glass ceiling by sidestepping it, bringing many others in her wake.

Few entrepreneurs have been as successful as Dame Stephanie; even fewer have done as much to champion the cause of women in computing. We’re delighted to share her inspirational story.

Posted by Lynette Webb, Senior Manager, External Relations
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An evening with the UK’s computing pioneers

It was fish and chips, ice-cream and popcorn all round as we celebrated the UK’s computing heritage on Monday with a night of film and stories from some of the country’s pioneers.

The evening began with unveiling a new display showcasing the extensive contributions the UK has made to computing—from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, to Donald Davies and Tim Berners-Lee. It now has pride of place in the reception of Google’s Central St Giles office in London, and we hope will help make these achievements better known.



Following came more formal sessions, beginning with those who first brought the Internet to the UK. The pioneering work of the National Physical Laboratory was described by Roger Scantlebury and Peter Wilkinson, both members of Donald Davies’ team who built the NPL network—the first Internet-like thing in the UK. They were joined by Peter Kirstein from UCL and Vint Cerf who recounted the story of how the US Arpanet came to be connected to NPL’s network, via Peter’s workaround gateway at UCL.

It was a thrill to have these four pioneers together, reminiscing about their early work and the creative ways they overcame the many challenges, bureaucratic and technological. If you’d like to hear the inside scoop on how the Internet got started in the UK, enjoy this video:

The evening was rounded off with some film screenings, interspersed with presentations by Tilly Blyth from the Science Museum, and David Hartley from TNMOC, describing the great work they’re doing to help preserve and promote the UK’s computing heritage. Finishing with a lively Q&A session with Vint Cerf where we talked about the Internet’s future.

 

Thanks to everyone who came, and all who shared their stories, making it such a memorable night.

Posted by Lynette Webb, Senior Manager, External Relations
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Helping make the history of computing relevant

A global group of museum curators, academics and others working to preserve computing’s past recently converged on London’s Science Museum to discuss ways to make the history of computing relevant to a wider audience.

Google helped fund and organise the gathering, in partnership with the Science Museum, the Computer Conservation Society and the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) working group on computer history.

Discussion during the two days was lively and wide-ranging. Topics included:

  • Shifting emphasis away from pure technology to focus on stories of inventors and people who used the machines—explaining what happened and why it mattered in a wider, more engaging context.
  • Collecting personal histories of computing in the form of oral and video accounts, to glean a deeper understanding of people’s motives and interests, and the challenges they faced.
  • Pros and cons of maintaining and demonstrating working models of early computers in a museum setting—what is practical and when is it worth the effort?
  • Helping educators to inspire students by including reference to computing’s pioneers in their classes, the same as happens in other (older) fields of science. 

The full programme for the conference, plus links to papers and presentations, can be viewed here.

While Google’s focus is firmly on the future, we also care about preserving our industry’s past. Tales of ‘machine dinosaurs’ and the people who created and used them can spark a wider interest in computer science. Showcasing the contributions of women and other minorities in computing history can overturn stereotypes. Finally, we believe it is also important to pay tribute to computing’s forgotten pioneers, many of whom—especially in Europe—have not had the recognition they deserve.

It’s for these reasons that over the past several years Google has been quietly looking for ways to help preserve and promote computing heritage. We have partnered with museums and other organisations, and have sought to contribute directly through our series of short films and blogposts. Our sponsorship of this conference is a natural extension of our partnership with London’s Science Museum and we were delighted to take part.

Posted by Lynette Webb, Senior Manager, External Relations
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“You’ve come a long way, Baby”: remembering the world’s first stored program computer

Sixty-five years ago today, the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine—nicknamed “Baby”—became the earliest computer in the world to run a program electronically stored in its memory. This was a flagship moment: the first implementation of the stored program concept that underpins modern computing.

Earlier computers had their instructions hardwired into their physical design or held externally on punched paper tape or cards. Reprogramming them to do a different task entailed internal rewiring or altering the physical storage media. The Baby marked a new computing era, described by some as the “birth of software,” in which swapping programs was far simpler—requiring only an update to the electronic memory. Both instructions and data were held in the Baby’s memory and the contents could be altered automatically at electronic speeds during the course of computation.

Developed at Manchester University by “Freddie” Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, in size the Baby was anything but: more than 5m long and weighing a tonne (PDF). Its moniker was due to its role as a testbed for the experimental Williams-Kilburn tube, a means of storing binary digits (“bits”) using a cathode ray tube. This was a big deal because up until this point, computers had no cost-effective means of storing and flexibly accessing information in electronic form.

In technical terms, the Williams-Kilburn tube was the earliest form of random access memory, or RAM. The Baby’s memory consisted of one of these tubes, able to store up to 1,024 bits—equivalent to just 128 bytes. In contrast, the average computer today has RAM in multiples of gigabytes, more than a billion times bigger.

The Baby was only ever intended to be a proof-of-concept rather than to serve as a useful calculation tool. So once it had shown the new memory was reliable, attention shifted to building a more powerful and practical machine using the same concepts. This resulted in the Manchester Mark 1, which in turn was the model for the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first computer to be sold commercially, in February 1951.

While today nothing remains of the original Baby, a working replica is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. It’s well worth a visit to reflect on just how far computing has come.

Posted by Lynette Webb, Senior Manager, External Relations
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Remembering WEIZAC: the beginning of computing in Israel

Israel is now one of the world’s tech powerhouses, second only to Silicon Valley as a hub for startups, but it wasn’t always this way. Today, in honour of the 84th birthday of Professor Aviezri Fraenkel, we’re delighted to share a short film sharing his story of working on the WEIZAC, Israel’s first computer.

Short film produced with support from Google as part of our ongoing computing heritage series

The impetus to build a computer in Israel came from Professor Chaim Pekeris, an MIT-trained geophysicist and mathematician, who made it a condition of accepting a job at the then-fledgling Weizmann Institute. An illustrious committee was set up to consider Pekeris’s request and initially opinion was divided. In particular, Albert Einstein was skeptical a computer in Israel would receive sufficient use and queried whether the skilled resources to build it were available. It took much convincing by another committee member, mathematician and computing luminary John Von Neumann, before the project got the go-ahead.

Construction of the WEIZAC (“Weizmann Automatic Calculator”) got underway in late 1953 under the leadership of Professor Pekeris and Jerry Estrin. A protege of Von Neumann, Estrin arrived in Israel armed with design drawings based on the computer at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. After advertising for recruits, a small team of engineers and technicians was assembled, among them Aviezri Fraenkel.

It took the team a lot of ingenuity to source the necessary materials. Some were imported, but others were clever adaptations, such as the thin copper strips that came from a small local bicycle-part shop! Despite such hurdles, progress was steady, and the major components were in place by the time Estrin returned to the U.S. 15 months later.

The WEIZAC performed its first calculation in October 1955 and was soon much in demand by Israeli scientists. It remained operational until the end of 1963—50 years ago this year. Nowadays it resides in the Weizmann Institute’s Ziskind Building as a fitting memorial to where computing in Israel began.

I have fond memories of passing by the WEIZAC every day when I studied at the Weizmann Institute, where I also had the privilege to attend a class by Professor Fraenkel. With the release of this short film, I’m delighted to be learning more from him about such an important chapter in Israel’s tech history.

Posted by Yossi Matias, Senior Engineering Director, Head of Israel R&D Centre
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