Bletchley Park

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August 19th 2019
Published: August 19th 2019
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A pleasant young man with a booming voice cheerfully relieved us of £36 and welcomed us to Bletchley Park. “You can come back anytime in the next year with those tickets. We would love to see you again,” he said, “but you’ll need to sign them. We’ve had people selling them on eBay!”

Now, there’s an idea, I thought.

Bletchley Park housed the codebreaking operations during World War II and was the birthplace of modern computing. Historians believe the work there shortened the war by two years, saving many millions of lives. At the peak of operations some ten thousand people worked there intercepting and deciphering enemy radio signals. Although very much a team effort, a few individuals stand out: Alan Turing, John Tiltman, Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and Dilly Knox to name but a few.

Bletchley Park was crowded with visitors and we shuffled round the displays of Enigma machines and equipment used at the site. One of the Enigma machines was stamped with ‘Made in Germany’ in English. There is a reproduction of a Bombe machine (the original machines were dismantled after the war), designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, which was used to help break the Enigma machine code.

There is a special exhibition in the park dedicated to Bill Tutte and a larger one to the life and work of Alan Turing.

Turing is considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Despite his accomplishments at Bletchley and afterwards, he was not fully recognised in his home country during his lifetime, partly due to his homosexuality and because much of his war-time work was covered by the Official Secrets Act. In 1952 he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. His conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and barred him from entry into the United States. On the 8th June, 1954, Turing's housekeeper found him dead at the age of 41 from cyanide poisoning. The verdict was suicide.

In 2009, following an internet campaign, the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated” and he was pardoned posthumously. It was recently announced that Turing would be depicted on the new £50 note which pleased me immensely.

When I started to learn about computers in the 1960’s and early 1970’s all of the books told me that the first computer, technically just a digital electronic calculator, was the American made machine called ENIAC. It wasn’t, but information about one built at Bletchley two years previously, the Colossus, was kept secret until the 1970’s. Ironically, information about Colossus came from the USA. In 1995 the American National Security Agency was forced by the Freedom of Information Act to release thousands of World War II documents, including one by Albert Small which was a complete description of Colossus.

Non techies may want to skip this paragraph. Colossus was a two-bit (in its literal, not colloquial sense) computer capable of reading 5,000 cps from paper tape. With its 1700 valves it could perform a hundred Boolean calculations simultaneously. Due to these parallel calculations it was probably as fast as a modern desk PC albeit with a very specialist hard-wired program. It was used to break the codes of the German Lorenz cipher machine that was used by the German High Command and played an important role in breaking coded message between Hitler and his generals.

We had hoped to go to the computing museum on the same site but it was almost 4pm by the time we had finished at Bletchley and we were tired, so I just added it to the travel wish list for a future visit. I’m putting my ticket, valid into 2020, in a safe place, just in case.

The full blog of this trip can be found on Cotswolds Travels

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