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Innovation

A musical trip to Bletchley Park - 2

continued from Part 1And we were in BP proper. The security guard in his roadside hut was very friendly.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

continued from Part 1

And we were in BP proper. The security guard in his roadside hut was very friendly. He directed us towards Block H, where the collection and the rebuilt Colossus was waiting for us. We trudged on into increasingly surreal surroundings: a mixture of industrial buildings, some abandoned, some still in use – but not, apparently, today; the place seemed empty of people. Some buildings sprouted fine collections of antennae, others had peculiar vehicles parked outside. One had a Harrier fighter jet on its lawn. Through the winter trees, we could see the mansion – and the high water mark of the surrounding housing estate, lapping up against the very functional fence.

And there, finally, was Block H, the whitewashed single-story maze of buildings that was the original home of the Colossuses – now containing many hundreds of rare, classic and legendary pieces of technology, a team of incredibly committed volunteers, a pivot point of 20th century history, and the bearded bard of the bit – Pixelh8 himself. We were served tea and shown through into the backroom workshop, where working air traffic control systems hunkered down next to PDP 8s and 11s, Amigas, Avometers, boxes of PCBs and paper tape, and oscilloscopes piled on power supplies, Sords and tagstrips. In all directions. And in the background, the distinctive sound of a BBC Micro (plugged, as it should be, into a 12" black and white portable Ferguson TV) playing a repeated little arpeggio.

Reader, I lost it. Well, not quite, but I came close. There was once a time when my own (OK, my parents') attic looked and sounded not dissimilar: I felt like a mountain gorilla, snatched in childhood from the rainforest for the City Zoo, then returned for a brief moment in middle age to a vast and perfect country where my natural habitat had been left to grow untouched. And to be there talking about all that and weird music, one of my other great loves – well, it really gets no better than this.

To add to my exhilaration, Pixelh8 – naw, Matthew – proves to be a superb chap in every respect, and full of stories about what happens when a young nerdly musician finds himself in tune with the times. I won't repeat them all here now, as I don't know which ones (if any – we got hours of recordings and the final slot is 8 minutes long) will make it onto the programme, but we had a rare old time persuading dinosaurs like an Elliot 803 to beep on command and an IBM card puncher to click and whirr in decent order.

I will reveal that he is so zeitgeist that he's going to be (may already be – I haven't checked) in Dazed and Confused (*), which has quite possibly identified him, correctly, as Fashion Anti-Hero of 2009. This is perfectly in order with BP's own brand of spiky eccentricity, of course, and has already led to some classic moments. On the day of the photoshoot, the Dazed and Confused photographer lived up to the name when, in the manner of one habituated to snapping the beau monde of cutting-edge celebrities, he asked Matthew "Where's your stylist?".

The absence of stylist established- the Pixelh8 World Standard Geek look being entirely model's own - they reportedly settled down to have a lot of fun transgressing the norms of the fashion shoot. However, the photographer was a passionate fellow from the Continent, and during moments of stress was given to yelling things in German. "Which may not have been the best idea, in the same room as Colossus", said Mr Applegate.

Ah, Colossus. A living, breathing, clicking beast, tended by the otherworldly figure of Tony Sale. I got close enough to feel the heat thrown off by its five hundred and one thyratrons and decode the colour rings on its resistors (Colossus, that is, not Tony Sale, who is entirely and charmingly analogue). You owe yourself the pilgrimage. (And, if you make it to "Obsolete?", you'll get a tour thrown in, plus you'll be rubbing shoulders with some very interesting people from music and tech.)

One thing that stuck with me as we bowled back home – with Pixelh8 leading the way; the man lives in Ipswich, so has to commute via London while he's in residence – is that BP still has plenty of secrets left to tell. It had a long and complex life after the war, is still a very secure location, and there's an entire parallel history of UK IT to be told from military and state angles which is, to put it delicately, interwoven with the Park but not yet on display.

The other extremely strong impression I got is that BP has the potential to be a truly world-class site, a centre not for the dry display of past achievements but for demonstrating, even exploring, the cultural and human aspects of the current information revolution.

Heaven knows, we need one.

(*) In an earlier version of this blog, I erroneously said that Pixelh8 was going to be on the cover of D&C. He isn't. But he should be.

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