Go back to article: Information age? The challenges of displaying information and communication technologies

Translating abstract ideas into physical space

Another challenge for science and technology museums is that often they are charged with representing a scientific idea – or a concept – to visitors, but the idea itself has no physical manifestation that can be placed in a gallery. When that theory is associated with the idea of information the challenge is no less difficult. 

Alan Turing’s 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers’ (1936) was a thought experiment designed to explore the concept of a universal machine, a machine that could manipulate symbols according to a series of logical steps. His published paper is the only physical manifestation of these fundamental ideas that formed the basis of modern computing. Similarly, Claude Shannon first set out his ideas for information theory in his 1948 paper, giving a mathematical underpinning to the transfer and reception of information. Apart from his published paper, the Science Museum has no physical artefacts that directly represent Claude Shannon’s ideas. Both concepts are fundamental to the intellectual underpinnings of the creation of information and communication technologies. Yet both are contained within complex academic papers which mathematically express an idea, but in a way that is alien to the experience of most museum visitors.

Acknowledging that both Turing and Shannon were central historical characters in the gallery, we chose to tackle this by viewing all of these concepts as socially constructed and therefore as legitimately understood through their human and personal history. For the Information Age team these seminal papers could be explored through the people and times in which they were imagined and through the subsequent technologies which rely on these initial ideas. We displayed the front page of the published papers, alongside objects from Bell Labs and Manchester University where Shannon and Turing respectively worked. Turing’s paper was placed near the Pilot ACE computer, the prototype computer which was based on Turing’s initial 1946 designs but completed in 1950 by another team. 

By placing Shannon and Turing’s  academic papers side by side we could also allude to a little known moment at the end of 1942. This was the point when Alan Turing and Claude Shannon met in a cafeteria at Bell Labs during the Second World War to discuss their shared interests. Although Shannon’s paper on information theory was yet to be published, both men had a common interest in cryptography and the question of whether a machine could mimic a human brain. By positioning their portraits and papers side by side, the gallery invites visitors to imagine these two great minds coming together to make their own links between the people, their conversation and ideas.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a display case on computing in the Information Age exhibition showingpictures of early computer specialists a valve from an early computer and a part of the Manchester Mark 1 machine

View of one of the cases in Information Age on computing, showing Alan Turing and Claude Shannon side by side, alongside a valve from the Colossus computer and a part of the Manchester Mark 1* machine

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150303/004