Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 27/3/2006For the next week, you've still got time to get your bids in for a possibly genuine Enigma machine — which at the time of writing was looking a bargain at €25,000. If that's too rich for you, £120 buys you a working electronic model from Bletchley Park itself.

Monday 27/3/2006

For the next week, you've still got time to get your bids in for a possibly genuine Enigma machine — which at the time of writing was looking a bargain at €25,000. If that's too rich for you, £120 buys you a working electronic model from Bletchley Park itself.

Or you could build one yourself from scratch. Tatjana van Vark has — which is perhaps not what you might expect from a 62 year old Dutch woman. But this enigmatic artist has the true geek gene: I mean, sure, everyone's heard of Enigma. Plenty of people who wouldn't know a Caesar from a Playfair would like to have one to decorate their pads. But an NBS?

NBS is no better known as the Navigation and Bombing System, and you won't have heard of it. You may have heard of the V-bombers — the Victor, Vulcan and Valiant – which for a while were the chosen delivery systems for the British nuclear deterrent, before the Royal Navy got the gig with American missiles we're not allowed to fire anyway. The NBS is the analogue computer that made sure the planes got to where they were supposed to and ladled out their buckets of sunshine when they got there.

The thing is monstrous. It has gears, motors, cathode ray tubes, gimballing platforms, and all other required appurtenances of a mad professor's underground laboratory, spread apparently randomly across at least forty square feet of black metal racking. Seeing as much the same job can be done by a pocket GPS these days, it's a truly awe-inspiring example of how powerful modern digital electronics actually is. And how dangerous: the NBS was the result of a powerful, technically savvy nation which had been developing navigation systems and conducting thousands of bombing raids for six years. Few other countries at the time could have done it. Now, you can order a Garmin GPS over the Internet for a hundred dollars — even from Tehran.

With such thoughts comes from the realisation that for quite some time, this implausible machine was at the forefront of preventing nuclear war — and if that failed, of delivering it. There are a handful of videos on that site which show bits of the NBS in action: try watching the automated bomb drop sequence without having the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And then, imagine being in the back of a Vulcan — the noisiest, darkest, scariest workplace on earth — operating this Frankensteinian contraption to the point where you have to see those lights go on for real.

That's if the NBS ever actually worked: rumours are that it was every bit as reliable as it looks. I'm glad that TvV is keeping one going, though: a good reminder that just because something is of enormous importance, that doesn't mean it can't be as weirdly baroque as a Dalian nightmare.

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