Everything Is Awesome

Computing's Golden Age

Article from Issue 199/2017

The past is a foreign country.


After years of promising myself that I would go there, last week I went to Bletchley Park, home of the code breakers, a sculpture of Alan Turing, and an excellent day out.

Next door to the Bletchley Park museum (but occupying the same wartime site) is The National Museum of Computing. The two museum trusts have had a falling out that my tiny mind can't understand, but the end result is very sad: They are separated by a wire fence, have separate admission charges, and there's an obvious animosity towards Bletchley from some of The National Museum of Computing volunteers.

Apart from my having to walk a bit further and pay a bit more, the effect of this is that the bombes (the mechanical calculators that cracked the German military's Enigma cipher) and Colossus (the first computer, which was built to crack the Lorenz cipher used by the Nazi high command) are kept separate, even though they form part of the same story. Humans are silly.

Human silliness aside, the other thing that stuck with me from the computing museum is how lucky we are. Nostalgia is pernicious; it's easy, and lazy, to say that things were better in the olden days. But in the field of computing, we've never had it so good.

This was brought home to me by the ICL 2966 mainframe. This machine is enormous – the size of four or five fridge freezers. It only runs when the man who knows how it works is there, and it powers a few dumb terminals running Conway's Game of Life and a version of noughts and crosses. The electricity and maintenance costs must be huge, not to mention the cost of buying the thing itself.

On the days when the man who knows how the ICL 2966 works isn't there, they switch it off and use a Raspberry Pi instead.

Yes, a Raspberry Pi. For just a few quid and three decades, the ICL 2966 is rendered obsolete by a cheap, mass-produced machine that a child can set up. Low power, low cost, low maintenance – the Raspberry Pi is better in every way than the ICL 2966 it replaces. Progress is fantastic. Computers are cheaper, faster, and better than they used to be. A gray Amstrad or Psion has nothing to teach me about computing, but it does tell me that today is much better than yesterday.

Things are great. And they're getting better. We're lucky to have people like the volunteers at The National Museum of Computing for their stewardship of the past, but we shouldn't think that the olden days were a golden age – the golden age is now. Unprecedented power is at your fingertips, so go and hack something, and make it beautiful.

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