Back to the future: Can we use history to inspire the next generation of engineers?

6 mins read

The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) is blessed with the perfect setting; it is located at Bletchley Park, famously home of the World War II code breakers. In fact, the machine most closely associated with the code-breaking feat, Colossus, is actually not strictly a Bletchley Park exhibit; instead, it has pride of place within TNMOC, which is an independent charity.

The museum is far from being a 'one trick pony'. It is housed in 'Block H', built in 1944 to house the Colossus machines, of which there were ultimately ten in use. However, within the maze of the Block H passageways there is much more to see than just Colossus and the Museum is using these exhibits to inspire the next generation of engineers. Chris Monk is learning co-ordinator and works at TNMOC for four days a week. The link between the past and the future is an important message for him. "Children need to know where computers came from; it took time, it took pioneers and it took creativity. Sometimes, they think it all stopped with Colossus all that time ago, which is why I like to talk about ARM to show that it is not all over – Britons can still do some amazing stuff. If we get children coming through with the necessary skills and the chance to deploy their imagination, we can do a lot more." The path from the early days of computation to the present is represented at the Museum and includes some intriguing artefacts, notably some slide rules developed for use by the tax man to calculate the volume of spirits in a barrel, and some early mechanical adding machines. But it is Colossus – the world's first programmable electronic computer – which really kicks off the modern story. New Electronics covered the story of Colossus and the Bletchley code breakers last year, but there is plenty more of interest at TNMOC. One of the biggest recent attractions has been the Harwell Dekatron, otherwise known as the WITCH. In 1949, at the Harwell atomic establishment, a pool of young people performed by hand the various calculations required by the different departments. It was decided to build a computer to take the drudgery out of the work and to ensure its accuracy. The machine operated at Harwell from 1951 to 1957 – one of possibly only a dozen computers in the world at that time. It used dekatrons – a tube with lights and ten settings so it can be read it like a clock. It then went to what is now Wolverhampton University and was renamed WITCH – the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell – and operated there until 1973, by which time it was getting a bit long in the tooth. It then went to the Birmingham Science Museum and then into storage when the Museum closed. After decades gathering dust, it was spotted by an enthusiast, the bits were collected together and rebuilt at TNMOC. It was turned on in 2012 and is claimed to be the oldest original working digital computer – others are all reconstructions. Inspiring children Apart from its place in history, the WITCH has proved to be an ideal tool for Monk to help children link the past and the present. "You can see what is happening on the computer, from an educational point of view it is fantastic. It is so big and so slow that teachers can say 'look, there is the fetch execute cycle we are teaching, happening before our very eyes at a speed we can all see'. "If you want computing to be a science," Monk continued, "they need to know its history. We want them to see all that has gone on over the last 60 years and to give them an understanding that, if all of that has happened in the last 60 odd years, what is going to happen in the next 60? We get them to 'future gaze' and their response is tremendous. They want to understand; and machines like the Dekatron can challenge their assumptions. For example, I can say we had a perfectly good working computer using a base 10 system – why did we ever need binary? It gets them thinking about why it is true and its relevance to electronics today." The TNMOC's current capacity is about 3500 GCSE and A-level students over the course of the year, largely constrained by Museum space and funding. Apparently, many students are surprised that the UK has such a rich heritage in computer development and equally surprised that UK based devices, particularly the ARM processors, are found in so many electronic devices today. Monk outlines his argument to connect the two. "Take the example of ARM processor and the BBC Micro – Acorn sold about 1.5million BBC Micros into schools. When it started on a new model in the early 1990s [the Acorn Archimedes], a new processor was needed because, in the 1990s, everyone wanted to push a mouse and have a graphic user interface. Acorn wanted speed, but couldn't find a processor it was happy with, so designed one for itself. The original name was the Acorn Risc Machine, often called the accidental processor. They realise it hardly draws any power. At the same time, across the Atlantic, Apple is working on the Newton – the idea of a portable computer. These two came together and we had the birth of this processor." This becomes a relevant message to children accustomed to the connectivity all around them. Monk added: "It encourages the kids to appreciate that we are entering the age of the Internet of Things – the embedded computer. It is not about the computer you can see, it is about the multitude of those you can't and that is really where the ARM processor comes into its own." Beyond an entire history of computers within TNMOC exhibit rooms, the educational tools at Monk's disposal are manifold. From Lego Mindstorms through to the purpose designed educational and hobbyist platforms like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, TNMOC runs programmes, such as Summer Bytes, intended to stimulate creativity. Last summer, it had a fully programmable Hornby train set to illustrate that every hobby can be enhanced by an engineering mind. However, in terms of sparking an interest in programming, Monk likes to go back in time; his programming language of choice is BBC Basic. "One of the things that it got right, back in 1981, was the learning curve. Any child could sit at a BBC computer for a few minutes, get something out of it and have fun. With a lot of modern systems, you have to do a lot of work before you get anything coming back. So I think the BBC got it right. I am not saying we can go back to that – I am not sentimental – but some of the principles from the 1980s, like giving kids access to these machines, getting them to code them, use them, take them apart, that was good stuff and we need to do that with modern machines such as the Raspberry Pi." This ties in with changes to the school curriculum – computing has recently become a separate subject from ICT – and, for Monk, this is a welcome change. "ICT still has a place, it is important that people know how to use the applications, but I think every child should understand the instructions behind their app or game. I am not trying to turn them all into programmers any more than an English teacher is trying to turn them all into journalists. Every child should have a chance to read and write and every child should have a chance to code and use a program as a means to solve a problem. The real key is problem solving skills." One concern for Monk is how these skills are taught. A former maths teacher, his subject matter had largely been established hundreds of years ago, but when he switched focus to computing, it was different. Teachers could not expect to know everything because everything was changing, so the skill became encouraging creativity and not letting a teacher's limited skill set hold a pupil back. This is where the engineering industry needs to step up to the plate, said Monk. "We need to do it differently, get industry involved. [Children] are the future, invest in them. That is where industry comes in, because schools haven't got the time to do it. If a company mentors, or sponsors, a student through university, there is your future employee or customer, so industry really benefits by encouraging those kids to stay in computing. Make it attractive for them." With increasing numbers of clubs like the Young Rewired State, Code Club, First Lego League and many others, there is an opportunity for companies and individuals to help teachers at (or after) school. "We need more adults to help out, said Monk. "I sometimes think we need less structure, rather than more; instead of telling schools what to do, why not give kids a chance to play with the technology outside of the school framework and then let the schools worry about the syllabus bit?" Women in engineering There is another 'elephant in the room' that Monk is not scared to address. Of the 3500 students who sign up for school trips to TNMOC, boys outnumber girls by 30:1. Monk counters this with an anecdote about the Red Bull racing team, which gains valuable fractions of a second by simulating every race in advance. When he went to meet the programmers, he was surprised to be introduced to two '20 something' women. "That is what we need to show children today. Instead of talking about Ada Lovelace [dubbed the world's first computer programmer on account of her algorithms for Charles Babbage's machine], interesting as she is, your average 15 year old needs more modern role models. Red Bull couldn't win a race without these programmers. "When you see the team that designs the cars, you have a sea of more than 100 computers with each person designing their bit, which might just be a bolt. So you have people running applications, but you also have people 'under the bonnet' – the programmers – who are getting computers to do what they need to do. And we need more of them. "What we are doing in effect, by ignoring girls as potential programmers, is ignoring the skills of half of the population." Monks concluded: "I am passionate that we need to inspire the next generation because otherwise you and I are in trouble economically. For the last 20 years, there have been 'too many people eating and not enough cooking'. We need to have the engineers, coders and programmers active economically in the next 10 or 10 years, otherwise we have a problem. We keep outsourcing to other countries." The next issue of New Electronics, published on March 11, will further explore industry's role in engaging the next generation of engineers.