Technology of the Internet gallery is world first

The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park has marked the key contribution made by the UK to the development of the Internet, with a new exhibit devoted to the development of packet switching by engineers at the National Physical Laboratory in the 1960s.

The gallery traces the history of communication technology from 19th Century telegraph links to 21st Century high-speed Internet connections, with interactive exhibits, audio-visual displays, and real-time mapping of global Internet connections, plus an Internet technology timeline.

The gallery features pioneering landmark developments in circuit switching, whereby users are connected to a local switching centre (e.g., telephone exchanges), and provided with a circuit to another user. Examples showcased at the museum include the British European Airways (BEA) airline booking system of the 1960s, whereby 200 sales agents were connected to the central system, each with a terminal connected over a single fixed telephone line leased from the then Post Office.

Visitors can also try an emulation of the first demonstration packet-switching network established for NPL’s 200 users in the early 1970s. This network influenced Larry Roberts of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, who built it into the Internet forerunner ARPANET.

The development of packet-switching was led by NPL computer scientist Donald Davies (1924-2000), who first proposed his packet switching ideas at a conference in early August 1968. His work is recalled on permanent video display featuring members of Davies’s NPL original team.

The gallery launch was attended Brian Aldous, Roger Scantlebury, Peter Wilkinson, and Keith Bartlett, who worked closely with Donald Davies.

“Packet switching involves taking data, and chopping it into small separately addressed pieces to transmit through the network - the recipient receives it and puts it back together,” says Bartlett. “Anyone who has a home router is using a packet switch – it’s a microcosm of what we built at NPL over 40 years ago.”

The National Museum of Computing is currently open on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1pm, and on Bank Holidays in spring and summer. Groups may visit at other times by arrangement.
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