Bletchley Park, The Forge of Computer Creation

With today’s news of Bletchley Park facing possible financial rescue from a dim future of decay and oblivion, I decided to bump this back up to the top. I think all technologists can agree that this is an important historical site that needs to be preserved.

Bletchley Park Ltd
The Mansion

Bletchley Park
Milton Keynes

Today, the city of Milton Keynes is a large town with over 200,000 people living there, working at all sorts of office parks and such. But nearly 70 years ago, it was rural English countryside, with only scattered farms being the only indication that people were living there. Nothing really interesting at all.

Which is exactly what the British government wanted everyone to think.

The small town of Bletchley Park, which is now part of the greater Milton Keynes area, was the center for project Ultra, which employed thousands of people. The research and technology which came out of it is of huge significance, because without it, there would probably be no Information Age, no Internet, no Personal Computers, no Integrated Circuits … well really nothing that involves modern computer technology at all.

Bletchley Park can be rather Enigmatic. Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link for more.

In the early 1940’s, British shipping traffic came to a virtual standstill as Nazi U-Boats sank virtually every merchant vessel trying to cross the English channel and heading to America and elsewhere, resulting in huge shortages of food and other critical supplies required to feed and fuel the British nation. It became imperative that in order to hunt down these U-boats and sink them, you needed to know where they were and where they were going. The German Navy (as well as the German army, the Wehrmacht) used an electromechanical device known as an ENIGMA machine to encode secret messages, which were then radioed via Morse code to the U-Boats on patrol.

A German ENIGMA machine.

The sheer complexity and numerical variation of the ENIGMA cyphers and the frequency of the changing of the wheel settings on the device basically made decoding by hand impossible. By the time they could decode a particular set of orders, it was already weeks or months out of date. They needed a better system.

A reproduction of “The Bombe“, an early attempt at an electronic ENIGMA code-breaking machine. Its about six feet tall and the width of several home refrigerators.

A model of the new GCHQ building, the British equivalent to the NSA. GCHQ is the modern descendant of Bletchley Park.

One of the many blockhouses that were constructed for the offices and rooms that were needed to perform the code-breaking work.

A piece of the original Colossus code breaking computer used to crack Lorenz cyphers. The Bletchley Park code-breaking project and the existence of Colossus was kept secret from the public until 1974. Prior to that it was generally assumed that ENIAC was the first digital computer, but now we know differently.

A historical photo of Colossus in operation. The Bletchley Park museum is currently restoring a Colossus in the hopes of being able to demonstrate how it worked. EDIT: Apparently they have partially rebuilt one, but it isn’t on display in the museum in the Block B building, its in the Block H building and you need to call for an appointment to go see it :(. A nice gent named Tony Sale sent me a  link to some cool videos of the restored machine in action.

A lot of the research behind the creation of the Colossus was done by Polish mathematicians residing in Bletchley Park.

A wooden cypher board, which is a simple tool for figuring out alphanumeric scrambling.

A German warning sign.

An early model of the ENIGMA

A closeup of the ENIGMA removable rotor wheels.

A Lorenz cypher machine, used by the German High Command in WWII.

An M209 American cypher machine

A codebook

A very rare 4-rotor Abwehr ENIGMA. It was stolen from the museum in 2000 and then later returned under mysterious circumstances.

This is a cypher masking tool used by the Polish research mathematicians.

A whole bunch of vintage radios.

A mockup of a German Army radio room.

The upstairs area of the museum has lots of period items including lots of wartime posters and memorabilia.

Typical English food rations during the hight of the war.

The ultimate geek computer vendor hat. Yes I bought one.

No, its not a t-shirt for the latest German techno band.

Yes, you too can send secret communiques that can be easily broken by a $20 Palm Pilot bought off eBay!

Okay this is ridiculous. Its just a CD case with a rotating paper wheel in the middle.

The original Bletchley Park estate.

The original Bletchley Park mansion overlooking the pond.

5 Responses to Bletchley Park, The Forge of Computer Creation

  1. Jon says:

    Wow. Its like… computer geek paradise. :lol

  2. This has helped me visualize Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

  3. […] engine gears. And while we’re at it, a Univac III laptop, complete with winky-blinkies,. With a ENIGMA design smartphone to go with it. Not everyone thinks the Apple industrial design ethos fits their […]

  4. Matt says:

    Just FYI that miniature village is a model of GHCQ’s new building, NOT Bletchly Park, as far as I can tell.

  5. Andy Moore says:

    Jason, further to Matt’s comment (Apr 24th 08), the model is in fact the new GCHQ building, known as ‘the doughnut’, lying on the outskirts of Cheltenham, England……..

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