Do we need a computer museum in Cambridge?

Jason Fitzpatrick is trying to raise £1.5 million on Twitter, by getting 1.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

Jason Fitzpatrick is trying to raise £1.5 million on Twitter, by getting 1.5 million people to donate £1 each via PayPal, though bigger sums are obviously welcome. The money will be used to set up a Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. However, it could compete with The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park, The Science Museum in London, and other efforts, so it raises the obvious question: do we need it?

The problem is that computer history is very badly served in the UK. It's supposed to be the Science Museum's responsibility, but that hasn't done anything of much significance since the Apple II came out. This means there is an excellent case for TNMOC, which also benefits from sharing its site with Bletchley Park and its history of wartime code-breaking. We know that we must preserve Bletchley Park's manor house and other features, whatever else happens, and TNMOC helps with that.

Probably the best solution, as I suggested in The Guardian in 2007 (Cracking the case for a museum of computing), would be for the Science Museum to adopt TNMOC and for it to receive the appropriate government funding. But that's not going to happen, which leaves TNMOC scratching around for funds. It's had support from Bletchley Park Capital Partners, the BCS and its Computer Conservation Society and a few sponsors, and its volunteers are doing a brilliant job, but it shouldn't have to struggle. (Correction: it has not received funds from the local council, as stated earlier.)

The Centre for Computing History (Registered Charity No: 1130071) already exists in Haverhill, which is close to Cambridge, and on the web. However, it only has space to display a fraction of its thousands of exhibits, and it can't cope with many visitors. Moving it to Cambridge makes sense, for two reasons. First, Cambridge already attracts a huge number of tourists, and the CCH could tap into and enhance the flow. (By contrast, visiting TNMOC basically means making a special trip.) Second, Cambridge has helped produce many of our most significant computer scientists -- including Charles Babbage and Alan Turing -- and Acorn and Sinclair made it the heart of the British microcomputer business. As with TNMOC at Bletchley Park, there's a good geographical argument for its existence.

Like TNMOC, the centre wants to show working machines, and this has helped it earn a certain amount of publicity. For example, CCH supplied computers for use in The IT Crowd television series, and it was used to film scenes for a Channel 5 documentary about Elite, the BBC computer game written by two Cambridge undergrads. It has also worked with The Gadget Show, and it rents out vintage equipment.

If you want to know more about its vision for the future, The Centre for Computing History has a nice brochure (PDF) to support its appeal.

I'm already a very keen supporter of TNMOC at Bletchley Park, but I don't see why we can't have both. It's not like having two museums competing to buy unique works of art, such as paintings or sculptures, that cost £10 million each. The CCH will be displaying devices that were mass-produced by the thousand, or even by the million. Except in a couple of very rare cases, there's more than enough to go round.


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