London, History and Computing

Computing is threaded through the history of London, though the computing links are often hidden. Here are some stories and resources to help you explore Computing through its links to London’s History. We cover various periods (including before the first computer (though not computation) was successfully built):

  • The Romans
  • The Middle Ages
  • The Tudors and Stuarts
  • The Victorians
  • World War II
  • Modern History

So take a tour of London’s historic places with cs4fn as your guide and learn computing through history too.

[Red links tell you about tourist attractions, blue links give our computing stories behind them. Pages for teachers on our Teaching London Computing site are labelled [TLC]. Pages for younger (primary) children on our “A Bit of CS4FN site” are labeled [ABITOF]. Pages for older (secondary) students on the main computer science for fun site are labelled [CS4FN].

All information is correct to the best of our knowledge, but tourist displays come and go, so some may no longer be on show. Some may require advanced permission to see.

Celebrate London History Day

Launched by Historic England, the first ever London History Day will be on Wednesday 31 May 2017. It is chance to celebrate our city’s unique history and heritage: its historic buildings, sites, communities and heroes. Join in on Friday 26 May 2017 by encouraging your students to dress up as their favourite historic Londoner, or member of a London community, for the day! Follow on Twitter #LondonHistoryDay  Find out about the London Curriculum from the Mayor of London.

Here are some ideas of Computing related Londoners you might dress as:

  • Ada Lovelace
  • Charles Babbage
  • Sir Francis Walsingham
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Madame Defarge
  • HMS Belfast
  • David Bowie

Find out more about their links to computing below

Hold a Soiree

Why not hold a soiree (or if living in pandemic times a Zoom soiree) such as the ones held by Charles Babbage and where Ada Lovelace first met him and found out about his ideas for mechanical computers. They are parties (so dress up, eat nice food and drink!) where the centre of attention are new engineering or science  wonders that are demonstrated and explained. You might bring along a home made stereoscope or 3D glasses for example, a working model of Pepper’s Ghost as used in head-up displays or demonstrate the wonders of electricity and how it can be used to send a morse code signal from one room to another (all first invented by the Victorians)…

Create a pixel picture

Why not create pixel pictures (see below) of famous London historical landmarks? [See the Victorians below]

Write secret messages

Write secret messages in Bacon’s Cypher hidden in innocuous stories about London or famous Londoners [See Tudors and Stuarts below]

Roman London

Roman Mosaics and the representation of images

BritishMuseumLeadenHallMarketMosaic103463001The basic idea behind the way we represent digital images, such as in digital cameras, was invented by the Romans. They liked mosaics, and formed them from small tiles (tesserae) that could be rearranged into any pattern with the right instructions… much like pixels on a computer screen can only make the image you want if they’re the right colour in the right place. With the instructions you could transport and reassemble any mosaic anywhere in the Empire including distant outposts like Britain. Visit the Museum of London to see tesserai mosaics. Our digital images are square but they don’t have to be. You can also see the Leadenhall Street Mosaic  (a circular mosaic – the equivalent of having a round digital screen designed for circular images!) at the British Museum.

[Image of the Leadenhall Street Mosaic: ©Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)]

These also feature in ‘abitofcs4fn‘ – our new primary school computing magazine out June 2017 (has your UK state primary school signed up to receive a free copy?).

The Middle Ages

The Knights Templar used ciphers and templarflaginternational banking.

Visit the Temple Church which acted as a royal treasury and served as a place where people could deposit their riches to keep them safe – the equivalent of a bank vault – as part of their role as international bankers. They may have been using ciphers to support their banking activity. Banking today could not happen without encryption.

The Tudors and Stuarts

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots and lessons about poor cyber security

Visit the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots in the Lady Chapel at WeMary_Queen_of_Scots_About_to_be_Executed_at_Fotheringay_(Sir_James_D.Linton).jpgstminster Abbey. She was executed by Elizabeth I and her plotters were hung, drawn and quartered in the Tower of London  because they weren’t good enough at Computer Science! Her not-so-secret messages were easily cracked. She was caught out by a classic “man-in-the-middle” attack. A kind of attack that modern cyber security systems must prevent too. Visit the National Portrait Gallery and see the portrait of Mary, the great spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham’s who trapped here, William Cecil  Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, who Walsingham passed the information too and Elizabeth I (all on display in Room 2)

Sir Francis Bacon, Steganography and Binary Representation

See the statue of Francis Bacon, father of the Scientific Method. He realised the importance of hiding secret messages rather than just encrypting them, and invented a steganographic technique using different fonts to do this. Each letter was replaced be a binary version using a sequence of 5 a’s and b’s, where ‘a’ means use for one font and ‘b’ the other. This is hidden in a different longer message by writing each letter of the longer message  in the font indicated by the coded version. Bacon’s Cypher is also the earliest known binary representation of text.

  • Hide your own secret message in a story using Bacon’s Cypher.
  • Can you invent your own way of hiding other messages in a story by changing the presentation.
  • Write a program to convert messages to Bacon’s cypher.

The Victorian age

The foundations of the computer age were set by the Victorians – and they nearly managed to create a computer 100 years before it finally happened.

Nevil Maskelyne and human computers

Visit the National Maritime Museum’s Time and Longitude Gallery to find out about the problem that inspired the first computer. Charles Babbage became interested in the idea of creating a mechanical computer in part because of work he did calculating accurate astronomical tables used by sailors: ‘The Nautical Almanac’. It was a result of an idea of Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne and was the earliest way ships could work out their longitudinal (ie east-west) position at sea. The idea was based on observing the angle of the moon relative to other stars or planets, called the lunar distance. The almanac’s data gave an easy way to work out the time in Greenwich and its difference to local time. Then from that you can work out how far east or west the ship had travelled. However, it relied on the precomputed tables giving the time (in Greenwich) that each lunar distance occurred. Maskelyne employed teams of human ‘computers’ to do the calculations. These men and women were actually the first computers. Babbage realised a machine might do the calculations more accurately and so spent his life designing and then trying to build such a machine.

Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the Victorian Computer

Visit the Science Museum to see the Victorian Computing collection related to Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Both places where Ada Lovalace lived, and where Charles Babbage lived are marked with blue plaques.

Ada Lovelace,  who is widely considered to be the first computer programmer and the first to realise computers could be more than just big calculators, met Charles Babbage (who designed the first computing engine) at one of his famous London soirees and went on to work with him.

Charles Dickens and Data Security

Visit Charles Dickens home. He knew Ada Lovelace well, and even read to her on her deathbed. He included some computing – encryption and steganography – in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The character Madame Defarge, a revolutionary, knits constantly and in her patterns she uses a hidden code to ‘write’ the names of those who will be executed during the French Revolution. Charles Babbage is also thought to be the basis for a character who is an engineer in his novel, Little Dorrit.

Brunel, the Great Eastern and the laying of the transatlantic cable

Visit the Brunel Museum or the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich to see the story of Brunel and the Great Eastern, built in London. You can visit the Launch site (now gardens) See models of the ship at the Science Museum. The biggest ship of its time by far, it was a commercial failure as a passenger liner as it was too big for its time. However, it was exactly what was needed to lay the first transatlantic telecommunications cable, previous attempts at which had failed. This marked the start of the first global telecoms network.

Sherlock Holmes and Logical Thinking

Visit the sherlock-holmes-147255Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street and find out about the greatest logical thinker in fiction as well as Victorian life. Computer Science is all about thinking logically and it is the critical thinking behind programming, and of being sure that programs do what they are supposed to. Sherlock used extremely fine attention to detail to notice facts and then built up conclusions from those facts. That is how computer scientists reason about programs.

In the ‘Adventure of the Dancing Men’ Holmes shows his skills as a cryptographer – he must crack a code consisting of stick figures. He does so using frequency analysis.

Practice logical thinking puzzles and one day you will be as good as Sherlock and have the foundations to become a great programmer.

Georges Seurat’s Art and the representation of the image

6.Georges_Seurat_043Visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and see the work of Georges Seurat and the style he pioneered called pointillism. Explore how this is a precursor to the way modern computers and digital cameras store digital images. His pointillism style uses dots to create paintings very much like the way pixels are used to represent images. Close-up the dots are more obvious but from a distance the intended image is clear, using essentially the same underlying representation as bitmap images on a computer. He also used the idea that colours close together would fuse in the brain into new shades, just as Red, Green and Blue dots are used on monitors to make other colours.

Louis Braille and Data Representation

Braille is the first practical and widely used binary representation of text, invented long before the computer age by blind teenager Louis Braille (who was of course French so not strictly Victorian!) Binary representations went on to become the basis of all digital technology. Visit the RNIB archive at the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Pepper’s Ghost and Head-up displays

Modern head-up displays as used in cars and other augmented reality techniques make use of a victorian invention called Pepper’s Ghost. It was originally invented as a way to make ghostly figures appear and disappear on stage. Visit the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum to see a wonderful modern version where a life-size ghost of 70s Tennis star John McEnroe appears in the locker room.

Florence Nightingale and Data Visualisation

Visit the Florence Nightingale museum to learn about the most famous nurse ever. Actually she saved lives and changed the world of nursing because she was a mathematician not because of her nursing prowess. She was the first woman to be elected a member of the Royal Statistical Society. She also pioneered the use of pictures to present the statistical data that she collected about causes of war deaths and issues of sanitation and health. What she did was an early version of the current Big Data revolution in computer science. She was a pioneer of using data visualisation (now an area of computer science) to bring about change.

World War II

Winston Churchill and the Bletchley code crackers

Visit the War Rooms in Westminster where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his team made decisions about the war. It was computer science that gave them the edge. Their information was coming from Bletchley Park (half an hour from London!)  where codebreakers cracked secret German communications. They were able to read giving Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his team an edge in making those decisions. You can also day trip to the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

The team at Bletchley used techniques to crack the German Enigma machine originally passed on to them by Polish mathematicians with help from the French resistance. One of the leading code crackers was Alan Turing (born in London) who is a towering figure of computer science. Visit his birthplace near Paddington marked by a blue plaque.

HMS Belfast and the impact of cyber security skills

HMS Belfast, now permanently moored near the offices of the London Assembly, shows how the code cracking made a real difference. It was involved in a co-ordinated trap in 1941 to try to trackhmsbelfast-pixabay1526653.jpg and destroy a German ship that was the scourge of the Allied Forces’ supply convoys. The trap was set using information from the Bletchley team. Radar then helped them spring the trap.

Modern History

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the world-wide web

Visit the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see a portrait of Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the world-wide web.  Use his invention anytime, anywhere to explore all the above history even from home!

Christopher Strachey, David Bowie, Harold Cohen and computational creativity

The National Portrait Gallery also hold photographs of Christopher Strachey as a child (these may not be on display to the public) who went on to become a leading figure in Computer Science. His family belonged to the influential Bloomsbury Group of writers and intellectuals. He was a key figure in the development of programming languages. He also wrote the first example of creative writing program – it wrote love letters.

Another Londoner who pioneered computational creativity: computers that are creative, or support creativity, was rockstar David Bowie. See the famous mural of him outside Brixton tube station as well as many other sites linked to him across London.

At Tate Britain (in the Manton Foyer/Stairs) you can see an example of computer generated Art by Harold Cohen (born in London). He spent his life working on an Artificial Intelligence program called AARON that could paint for itself. It was programmed with rules of how to paint but chose what to paint itself.

  • Computer Science Research in London [COMING SOON]

More to come …

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