Machine People

Earlier this year, as part of the first year of my PhD, I had to make a documentary about something to do with art and technology.

A few weeks previously I had visited the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. It’s situated in a low, unassuming building at the back of the Bletchley complex, nearly invisible if you don’t know it’s there. Inside I met a whole team of volunteer engineers – mostly retired software and hardware people who started their trade in the 60s – who work on putting historic computers back together and getting them running.

And what machines they are. There is a reconstruction of Colossus, the mammoth code-breaking machine that was the top-top-secret weapon that won Britain the war. There is also an Eliot 803, one of the last in existence; a 2966 mainframe, one of two still operational; a Marconi TAC, one of eleven in existence that monitored a Welsh nuclear power station continuously for decades. Probably the most impressive is the enormous and beautiful WITCH, a machine constructed from decatron valves and telephone relays that clicks hypnotically as it does mathematical calculations. It is the oldest operational computer in the world.

The volunteers are unassuming, but their skill is immense – I was struck by the hundreds of years of experience between them, and that this group are some of the last people who know how these machines work. I heard some anecdotal stories of the restorations, which mostly have occurred over years and done entirely by these volunteers. I found the patience, commitment and ability of these people fascinating, and was suddenly very aware of the human element in the story of computing; I was also overwhelmed by the fact that this knowledge will likely die with this generation. Once these people are gone, the machines will fall silent.

So, I decided to do the documentary on the people behind the machines, and three other people in my year – Natalie Wilde, Daniel Gabana and Callum Goddard – were interested as well, so we formed a team. I approached the museum and, miraculously, they were very happy to have us around for a months’ worth of weekends. We started filming in February.

Getting the volunteers to talk about themselves is a trick; they want to talk about the machines. They want to talk about the history of a particular computer and show you how it works, and they seemed kind of bewildered as to why I was asking questions about them. But, when they finally settled into telling us about their lives a lot of fascinating stuff about them and the machines they work on came out. Steven, a retired software engineer who is restoring the Marconi TAC, has never worked with this machine before and there’s only one person left in the UK who knows how it works: the engineer who maintained it at the power station. This engineer is in his late 70s and has Alzheimers, and is trying to pass his knowledge to Steven before it disappears from his own mind. John, who restored the Eliot 803 after it was found on a farm in a hedge, started as an Eliot engineer in the 60s and remembers the machine well, although, as he puts it, “problems take a little more thought these days.” I ask him if he’s the only one in the country who knows how it works and he says “No, there’s one other man. And I know he’s still alive because I got a Christmas card from him this year.”

There is also a pervasive note of Britishness to what goes on here. Mugs of tea lie around everywhere, sipped from in between tasks. One engineer tells me, “Computing started right here at Bletchley, and the earliest innovations were British. People think everything is made in America or Japan. Kids don’t have any sense of where this stuff comes from.” He’s right – the museum is housed in a building where, during the war, multiple Colossus machines furiously whirred away cracking cyphers, and Alan Turing’s office lies a scant 200 feet away from the museum’s front door. Despite this, it’s easy to take the history of computing for granted, and to assume that things were always the way they are now – done somewhere else, by other people.

I found myself thinking that these are not “just” engineers, but artists – they are phenomenally creative and skilled, and an elegant and appropriate solution is always the goal. However, to classify engineering as one thing and art as another is to misunderstand the nature of both these things; at their most elegant, engineering and art converge and are indistinguishable. At their best, both are creative, require innovation and mental gymnastics and carefully-honed skill.

Our contemporary digital existence owes this place and these people so much; these people and these early machines, this pioneering spirit of will-it-work are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon while making our generative processes, our tactile interfaces, our networked performances. Despite this museum being a beautiful collection of historic, working machines and these volunteers being treasures of knowledge and experience, the National Museum of Computing receives no public funding and relies entirely on donations. They’re located at H Block at Bletchley Park, and they’re separate from the Bletchley Park Trust. Go there, visit these machines, and talk to the people that look after them.