Don’t let our innovations gather dust

This week it was revealed that Bletchley Park — site of the Second World War codebreakers — is to become home to a national museum of computing. The centrepiece of this new collection will be a lovingly restored Colossus Mark 2, the device responsible for deciphering communications between high-ranking German officers and also, as it happens, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer.

As well as providing a fascinating insight into the contribution made by scientists and engineers to the Allied war effort, the new centre will be a fitting celebration of Britain’s starring role in the birth of modern computing.

But on a less celebratory note, The Engineer suggests the museum could perhaps also be viewed as a warning from history of how easily, in the absence of a far-sighted approach, a world-leading position can be surrendered.

Despite the enormous impact of the Bletchley Park mathematicians on the outcome of the war, the post-war government of Britain failed, astonishingly, to spot the commercial potential of the code-breakers’ technology and instead, wrapped up our then world-leading expertise in the Official Secrets Act — effectively strangling a rich stream of innovation.

This left the way open for the US — which was far more open with its developments — to take the lead in what quickly became the global IT industry.

A similar lack of imagination and far-sightedness has returned to haunt the UK innovation over the intervening years. For instance, throughout the 1970s and 1980s we lost our capability to design and build our own nuclear technology. And in the 1990s an inability to spot the commercial potential of wind energy technology meant Britain surrendered a promising position that we have never been able to recover. In the case of nuclear technology the government’s ‘keeping the nuclear option open programme’ offers the hope of clawing back some of our lost expertise through the production of some 40 highly skilled graduates a year, but you get the picture.

Fortunately, one thing that the UK has never surrendered is a steady stream of world-leading research, creating a wealth of exciting new areas and opportunities for industry.

One example is nanotechnology where, although our once world-leading position has been lost, we are still in a good position to secure a big share of the global market. Britain is also, as we recently reported, in a fantastic position to lead the world in the emerging field of systems biology, a cross-disciplinary field that could ultimately lead to the development of biological computers.

And in the world of energy, our recent trip to the EMEC research centre in Orkney confirmed that the expertise is in place, should we choose to capitalise on it, to thrust the UK to the forefront of the emerging wave and tidal energy industry.

These are just a few examples, and thankfully there are many more. Let us hope the lessons of the past can be learned and a far-sighted approach that spots the commercial potential of our research will ensure that Britain’s technological future amounts to a bit more than a few dusty old museum exhibits.

Jon Excell, features editor