An introduction to Bletchley Park
June 5, 2008 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Bletchley Park: A WWII juggernaut. It decrypted German Enigma (try one!) and Japanese messages on an industrial scale in huts and blocks, had an outpost in Mombasa, and built one of the first modern computers (it helped that Alan Turing was on staff). Now a diverse museum with or without a funding problem, it generated yet more intrigue in 2000 when an Enigma was stolen, and hosts a rebuilt, working Colossus that launched a cipher challenge. Beating it wasn't easy!

For those that want to play at home the shop is fantastic, and there is an unrelated project breaking unbroken Enigma messages.
posted by jwells (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

Why are all the pics of Colossus missing?
posted by DU at 5:54 AM on June 5, 2008

"first modern computer" has a couple. The rebuilt link has none but it's to the guy who did the rebuild, Tony Sale. Some pics on his other pages didn't work in Firefox though. If that's it, try IE?
posted by jwells at 6:06 AM on June 5, 2008

Loved Stephenson's use of Bletchley in Cryptonomicon. Fascinating stuff.
posted by bullitt 5 at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2008

Some pics on his other pages didn't work in Firefox though. If that's it, try IE?

I am going to rebuild an IE in my basement.
posted by srboisvert at 6:26 AM on June 5, 2008

As long as Neal Stephenson is going to get brought up, now is as good a time as any to share that he has a new novel slated for release in three months and one week!
posted by sourwookie at 6:49 AM on June 5, 2008
posted by Postroad at 7:10 AM on June 5, 2008

This is so very cool. Thank you.
posted by pointystick at 7:23 AM on June 5, 2008

Enigma by Robert Harris should be required reading.
posted by muthecow at 7:29 AM on June 5, 2008

Theres been sporadic reports that the museum is in a state of financial crisis and under threat of closure, though they themselves deny it.
posted by Artw at 7:50 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

sourwookie - Not a historical jobbue? Interesting.
posted by Artw at 7:51 AM on June 5, 2008

This post should be put on a pedestal as an example of how to FPP on Metafilter. Freakin awesome.
posted by spicynuts at 7:56 AM on June 5, 2008

If Neal Stephenson is going to get brought up, I'll need a bucket.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:56 AM on June 5, 2008

Is it true that much of the progress made on Colossus was essentially wasted at the end of the war through Churchill's insistence that everything achieved must remain totally secret for ever? Computing having developed to its full extent and done all that it could ever do for Britain, obviously.
posted by Phanx at 8:06 AM on June 5, 2008

From what I saw, yes, the vast majority of Colossus was destroyed, even the design specs. The rebuild required digging around in people's notebooks and getting what the US archives had (guess we ignored the order). With at least one component they were able to get the original designer working with them from memory to the original specs. It was basically piecing together a puzzle without the puzzle pieces.

The order was given in the paranoia surrounding the start of the Cold War. The spoils of war were being split up and Churchill was afraid the Soviets would happen upon it, so he ordered it all be destroyed. Even BP fell into disrepair. They were closing the facility and held a demolition party for everyone who worked there, and it was at that party the movement to save it began. Which worked, thankfully.
posted by jwells at 8:14 AM on June 5, 2008

Nothing says, "Thanks for helping us beat Jerry and save the world!" like the treatment Turing was given after the War:

In 1952 during an investigation of a break-in at his home, Turing had revealed that one of the young men involved in the incident may have been his 19 year-old lover. As homosexual acts were still illegal in England at the time, Turing was arrested and made to stand trial. He pled guilty to 12 counts of indecent acts, and to escape imprisonment he agreed to undergo one year of estrogen injections, intended to dampen his sex drive. One side effect of the treatment, complained Turing, was that he began to "grow breasts".

More here.
posted by SaintCynr at 8:22 AM on June 5, 2008

Cool, Stephenson and I have the same publisher (in the UK, at least).
posted by gene_machine at 8:26 AM on June 5, 2008

Bletchley Park gave the UK a huge - albeit little recognised until recently - head start in terms of computer technology. For example Thomas Flowers - one of the designers of Colossus - went on to be one of the key figures involved with the construction of the Highgate Wood telephone exchange. This was a fully electronic exchange rolled out for a trial in 1962. The trial was abandoned but it is interesting to speculate how much the UK could have benefited by commercialising this technology about 30 years before it finally started to be rolled out.

A similar story maybe too for James Ellis who discovered public key cryptography back in the late 1960s - but was forbidden from telling anybody about it.
posted by rongorongo at 8:28 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

SaintCynr, you should remember that he did have part of the Manchester ring-road named in his honour. No higher accolade, and all that.
posted by gene_machine at 8:28 AM on June 5, 2008

Phanx and jwells: yes, Churchill ordered that all existing machines be broken into parts "no bigger than a man's hand".
posted by gene_machine at 8:30 AM on June 5, 2008

My friend, the Poles broke Enigma and gave it to the Brits, the Brits did not break Enigma.
posted by absalom at 8:32 AM on June 5, 2008

PS: Otherwise, great post!
posted by absalom at 8:32 AM on June 5, 2008

Also: Bletchley Park is responsible for my favorite palindrome. Peter Hilton, then a young code-breaker, pulled an all nighter in the middle of breaking Enigma to write:

"Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod."
posted by msalt at 8:44 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

[guvf vf tbbq]
posted by Skorgu at 8:47 AM on June 5, 2008

As absalom says:
posted by SaintCynr at 8:50 AM on June 5, 2008

This is what I picture in my mind whenever I think about what the behind the scenes of metafilter is like.
posted by quin at 8:54 AM on June 5, 2008

I'm in the BCSWomen group - British Computer Society's women's network.

We had a "premiere day" trip to Bletchley with one of the original Wrens showing us round, who was just amazing. This woman - Jean Valentine - was a total inspiration. She'd worked in the hut with the Bombe machine, and here we were, 50+ years later watching her work the replica. She said that when they unveiled the replica she told them it was wrong, much to the annoyance of the engineers who'd spent ages building a perfect replica. Turns out that she could never reach the top cogs on the original, but as the replica was made of lighter metal it had smaller casters so she could reach all the controls! I've put some photos and commentary of our visit here. They'd arranged for Tony Sale to be in the Collossus room, and his enthusiasm was marvellous; the idea that they reconstructed the collossus from some partial plans and 8 black and white photographs just blew me away.

One of the major things people don't realise about Bletchley is quite how much of the work was done by women. As a result, our group has carried out an oral history project interviewing the remaining women who worked there - you can find out more at this mini site Women and Bletchley Park on the main BCS website.
posted by handee at 9:18 AM on June 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

Incidentally, there's a BBC4 radio comedy set in wartime Bletchley in a fictitious "Hut 33."
posted by steef at 10:04 AM on June 5, 2008

Stephenson doesnt really get into the workings of the enigma in his book. I found the enigma chapter in this book to be pretty informative and readable.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:18 AM on June 5, 2008

I'd second that book recommendation.
posted by Artw at 10:20 AM on June 5, 2008

My friend, the Poles broke Enigma and gave it to the Brits, the Brits did not break Enigma.
I don't think anyone in this thread claimed that the British broke Enigma. The statement was that the British deciphered Enigma messages on an industrial scale, which is what they did using their bombes. The Germans added two rotors to Enigma in late 1938. The existing Polish bombes could not be used against the new Enigma. Although Rejewski figured out the wiring of the new rotors, their addition increased the number of perforated sheets needed to crunch the messages by an order of magnitude. It was the British that created the additional series of sheets after Poland was invaded.

(To be honest, I had your same reaction, but about the Japanese codes and the US role in breaking them.)
posted by joaquim at 10:55 AM on June 5, 2008

My friend, the Poles broke Enigma and gave it to the Brits, the Brits did not break Enigma.

I read the Enigma book that the movie was based on, and credit was given to the Poles if I recall correctly. The action of the story is based mainly around 'catching up' to the real-time daily machine rotor starting positions (a message 'key' to the machine's 'lock'), so that intelligence could be easier to act on later in the war -- not cracking the mechanism itself (configuration of wheels, etc.). So each day was still a fight to break the enigma, reverse-engineering the starting positions before that day's intelligence was worthless.

(on preview: what joaquim said)
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:13 PM on June 5, 2008

According to U-571 the yanks did it all. Quite surprising that, an American film suggesting that Americans won WWII single handed.
posted by Artw at 12:29 PM on June 5, 2008

Matthew McConaughey can do anything single-handedly. So dreamy...
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:57 PM on June 5, 2008

Not that it was in any doubt, but Jeff VanderMeer received an ARC of Anathem and it looks like another door-stopper. Thankfully my furious masturbation habit has yielded the additional benefit of an incredibly strong wrist. Looks like I'm gonna need it.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 1:25 PM on June 5, 2008

Matthew McConaughey can do anything single-handedly. So dreamy...

This "anything" does not seem to include doing up a shirt.
posted by srboisvert at 1:40 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

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