This Is What a WWII-Era Codebreaking Machine Sounds Like
"The Imitation Game" is hitting all the right notes at the box office. But what did codebreaking during World War II era actually sound like?
Bell Punch Company Limited, Model No. 509/D/865.686, UK. Photo: Matt Parker
The Imitation Game is hitting all the right notes. But what did codebreaking in the World War II era actually sound like?
Well, have a listen to this raw recording of a transfer unit from a machine that was used by the UK Government Code and Cypher School to pluck wireless telegraphy messages, sent by the German High Command, from the airwaves. It might not be Alan Turing's famous BOMBE machine, but the RCA AR-88LF Radio Frequency Receiver was nonetheless a crucial component in the effort to eavesdrop on the Axis powers.
That specific piece of hardware is just one of the many historic machines housed today at The National Museum of Computing Museum at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking hub where Turing, among other pioneering cyptographers and computer scientists, routinely tapped and decrypted the Axis powers' secret communications.
That's where UK-based audiovisual artist and composer Matt Parker has holed himself up. He's compiling a thorough sonic profile of historically significant computing artifacts housed at TNMOC.
For the past year, Parker has been investigating the ecology of the internet (last we heard from him, he'd just recorded the "claustrophobic atmosphere" at the heart of a data center), a exercise that has led him back in time. The more places he's visited and recorded since then, the more he began questioning the nature of computing itself.
"How fast have things progressed in the world of computing?" Parker asked. "What are the origins of electronic computing?"
Naturally, he's found himself at Bletchley, home to the world's earliest examples of working computer technology. There's really no better place to archive the sounds of obsolete, redundant, albeit significant machines, including desktop mechanical calculators like this Brunsgiva 13ZK:
It's part of a larger project, called The Imitation Archive, to preserve the endangered sounds of 70 years of computing history. Parker has his eyes (and ears) trained on everything from the world's first electronic digital computer; Colossus, the world's first electronic computer and one of Bletchley's better known WWII-era codebreakers; and the hulking tape-operated ICL mainframes from the 80s.
Eventually, his completed archive will find a home at the British Library's Sound and Vision archive.
Parker said he does think it's instructive to be able to study and admire these sorts of retro artifacts as they're preserved in museum cabinets; the rub is that "computers were made with functionality in mind."
"It's fantastic to be able to see and hear the machines at the museum performing the tasks they were designed to do up to 70 years previous," he said.
Of the vacuum tubes required to power Colossus, Parker was told there are only a finite number remaining. By his estimation, Colossus risks becoming defunct in less than a decade.
But it's not just Colossus. Parker offered a telling anecdote about the fragility of this kind of aging machinery. Earlier this week, while recording some of Bletchley's counting machines, including calculators and punch card readers, Parker chatted up the technician who's serviced and restored these historic machines for years. The tech is well into his 80s, and he told Parker, over the click and clack of a rare, large punch card reader, that he's now unable to come into the museum to maintain all this stuff. He's simply too old now to do the upkeep.
Then, suddenly, the machine broke.
"Will anybody ever hear it work again?" Parker wondered. "As the people that have designed, built and worked on these historic machines get older and move on, will anybody be able to replace them to help preserve these machines? I think it's important to capture the sounds of these fantastic pieces of engineering before it's too late and they are forever resigned to plexiglass display cabinets and locked away rows of climate controlled archival warehouses."