Zak Spade's

The Cow Catcher

Published under my View from the Stairs column in a magazine covering north Buckinghamshire, June 2011, as:
The Cow Catcher
by Phil J O'Hara

For anyone who doesn't know... Bletchley, in Milton Keynes, in north Buckinghamshire, is home to Bletchley Park where the WW2 code breakers worked.

o - O - o

Milton Keynes isn’t thought of as being part of the Wild West. Being in the UK as opposed to the USA seems to kill the idea that anyone might see a connection.

Why then, can I buy dream catchers in and around Milton Keynes?

The dream catcher came about sometime in the 1960s and 70s in America and was adopted by Native Americans, further adopted by non-Native Americans, before becoming rather ‘New Age.’

Ah, you have probably spotted the fact that the ‘Wild West’ period of American history is somewhat earlier than the 1960s and 70s and are now wondering what on earth this writer knows about history.

Well, the idea of the dream catcher is to stop bad dreams from getting to its owner. The job of the cow catcher is to stop errant cattle and scoop them up and away from the rails and the wheels of locomotives, as opposed to stopping bad dreams getting to the train driver.

The railways of North America differed to those of Britain in a fundamental way by being unfenced. This gave rise to the classic ‘cow catcher’ imagined to be on every train during the era of the cowboy.

Its use may be considered a little harsh on cattle, but it was probably better to scoop up a cow than squash it under a derailed train.

So I’ve gone to North America via a dream catcher then a cow catcher, and you are still wondering what this has to do with Milton Keynes. I shall continue...

A certain Charles Babbage invented the cow catcher (known as a ‘pilot’) in 1838.

Now, many in the world of computing consider Charles Babbage to be the father of modern computing. Certainly, his Difference Engine No 2 can be seen to be a forerunner of Colossus.

A-ha, yes that would be Colossus as in Colossus developed, built and operated at Bletchley Park during World War II. Colossus was the computer used by British codebreakers based in Bletchley Park (in Milton Keynes!) to help read encrypted German messages during that war.

What else did Charles Babbage do in addition to inventing the pilot? He achieved notable results in cryptography and his work was used to aid British military campaigns. I understand Bletchley Park had some degree of success in the field of cryptography during World War II.

I’m not sure that the residents of Milton Keynes feel they owe their liberty and freedom to the cow catcher, even though its inventor was working towards things that others have eventually been recognised for.

Charles Babbage was also noted for being somewhat ‘crabby.’ He once campaigned against ‘hoop-rolling’ in the streets and the matter was mentioned in Parliament: like someone writing to a modern-day MP to denounce toddlers taking up space on the pavements. He probably would have adapted his cow catcher invention to facilitate rounding up the concrete cows of Milton Keynes!

Does anyone want to join me in a campaign for a road to be called, The Cow Catcher somewhere near Bletchley Park?

© 2011

31 August 2021