'˜Scavengers' descend on The National Museum of Computing in Milton Keynes

The Summer Bytes festival at The National Museum of Computing has had a flurry of strange requests from across the globe.

Tuesday, 9th August 2016, 10:57 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2016, 12:00 pm
Sarah Eagleston of Sutton Coldfield inspects the Elliott 803.

Self-confessed scavengers have wanted to perform an obscure but simple calculation on any pre-1970 computer.

With the world’s largest collection of working pre-1970 computers, TNMOC has been able to help three entrants in The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (GISHWHES). The contestants wanted to find how long it would take to fly from New York to Reykjavik, Iceland, travelling at an average speed of 400mph.

First to arrive was 36 year-old. legal assistant and mother or two, Becky Buck.

“I’m a member of the international Team Waywardsons competing to win GISHWHES,” she said.

“We’ve been set about 175 challenges – all of them rather weird – to attempt during the week and we get points for completing them, and extra points for completing them with pizzazz! The winning team gets a trip to Iceland with GISHWHES founder, American actor Misha Collins.”

Apart from its barmy, fun challenges, GISHWHES also has a charitable purpose – it contributes to the charity Random Acts which promotes random acts of kindness. All entrants pay a fee which goes to the charity and teams receive points for showing all-round kindness to all sorts of people during the week.

Becky Buck had driven all the way from Dorchester in a seven-and-a-half-hour round trip just to witness and video the calculation on the TNMOC’s expertly restored 1960’s Elliott 903 computer. TNMOC volunteer Kevin Brunt demonstrated his programming skills in a 1964 version of the language of BASIC to perform a calculation that he could have done in his head!

“I have not smiled and laughed so much in years,” said Becky. “It takes me out of my comfort zone and I find myself doing all kinds of crazy things like running down a residential street in shoes and hat made of pineapple! I can involve my kids too. As one of my random acts of kindness, I will be visiting a care home with my kids, dressed as pirates, delivering flowers.

“I had time for only a short pit stop at the museum, but I did take the opportunity to look at the section on the history of gaming and got to meet a rather amazing robot called Pepper who was in the process of dazzling a group of youngsters. I have already planned to come back on a proper visit with my son who will love it!”

Next to arrive was Sarah Eagleston from Sutton Coalfield. Captaining Team Shiola, Sarah actually operated the early 1960’s Elliott 803 to perform the calculation – again with the expert assistance of Kevin Brunt, this time programming in ALGOL.

Sarah said: “I loved my visit to the Museum! I only wish I’d come at the opening of Summer Bytes when storm troopers were about. That would have let me complete another challenge! But I enjoyed my tour and thought the 1949 EDSAC computer being reconstructed was truly amazing.”

The third entrant, Jamie Hampton of Team Widdermaker, hails from Buffalo in the USA and requested a video of the 1951 Harwell Dekatron / WITCH computer performing the calculation. TNMOC guide Sheridan Williams undertook the programming in machine code while the whirring and flashing lights of the WITCH were videoed by TNMOC Operations Director Victoria Alexander.

“I’m a programmer by profession and a hobbyist cryptographer. So of course, when I saw a vintage computer item, I thought of Bletchley immediately. It’s an important place to me and I was very excited to get in contact. We are the reigning GISHWHES champions. To be able enter a video of the oldest working computer in action this year is quite something!”

Victoria Alexander, Operations Director at TNMOC, said: “As a museum, we receive lots of strange requests, but these ones come close to the top of the list! We’ve actually had more than twelve similar requests this week and have been able to help four – it has coincided with Summer Bytes which is festival with all sorts of zaniness and fun that runs every afternoon throughout August. We hope one of the teams we helped wins!”

The winner of the GISHWHES competition will be announced once the judges have sorted through and scored the bizarre list of entries.

Summer Bytes continues at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park every afternoon until 28 August 2016. From Saturday 13 August to Wednesday 17 August, there is a retro computer games special. Full programme of events: www.tnmoc.org/bytes