You may or may not be familiar with the movie The Imitation Game. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, code breaker and creator of the first computer. It is set in UK during World War 2 and follows the story line of the development of the enigma machine which eventually cracked Nazi and Japanese encrypted messages, ending the war much sooner than it would have otherwise.
I came to learn of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing from this movie. It was a story that I had not heard before, but upon hearing it I became immediately intrigued and decided that at some point I must visit the real Bletchley Park where the real events this movie is based on actually took place.
Bletchley Park is situated around 45 minutes North West of London. You can drive, or catch a London Midland train, the train being the quicker of the two options. We went by car by way of Oxford. It is around 35 minutes drive from Oxford, so well worth a side trip if you are visiting the area.
Tickets are cheaper online, so book ahead if you can. An online adult costs £16.00 compared to £17.50on the day. If you are a UK tax payer, you can gift aid your entry for no extra charge. Entry is valid for a year, so well worth it if you think you may come back to the area. There are plenty of souvenirs to be bought. I chose a guide book for £5 as the place is so rich in history I was sure I'd never remember it all otherwise, and also because they are soft covers, and quite small so light on the luggage!
Bletchley Park's expansive grounds contain multiple buildings that have been lovingly restored to their 1940's glory. The site was emptied after the war and many of the decoding huts have been lost, however many still remain. In addition to the decoding huts, there is a museum, parking garage and mansion to explore. The grounds are filled with gardens, trees and a pond. Many of the huts are filled with furniture and artefacts from the time, with the offices and meeting rooms set up to look like the would have whilst in use. It was interesting to see the technology available at the time, and how people worked together to achieve such amazing outcomes.
In addition to interpreting the site by visiting the decoding huts, you can get more of an insight into the technology and history of encryption in the museum. There were a lot of prototypes and versions of decoding machines made before the turing machine, in particular one called the Robinson machine which struck my husband's fancy (it is our last name). Unfortunately like most technology it was soon obsolete.
Not being particularly technically minded myself, I found it fascinating to see the progression of this technology and watch how these amazing minds fine tuned these machines over time using logic and statistics to enable codes to be cracked. In addition to hosting a large number of decoding machines, you can also have a go at decoding a letter yourself using a turing machine and play around on a radio to tune in to a secret correspondence.
What I found most interesting about the museum was the human element. In addition to developing clever machinery, tacticians using profiling to help them solve encryption well before it was a done thing. By thinking in the minds of the Nazi soldiers using the Enigma machines to send their messages, they were able to see patterns in the messages. Using theories such as 'what if the person sending this message is a little tired and has only changed a few symbols since the day before' or 'does the message have a common phrase or greeting' the code breakers were more easily able to see patterns in the messages that enabled them to set the decoding mechanisms for the day.
The turing machine
The Turing machine is special because it was the first machine to use computing technology. It was programmable and adaptable which was essential for decoding the enigma encryption as it changed on a daily basis. The machine itself required a lot of input. Large huts were filled with these machines which were programmed by the WRENS (Womens Royal Naval Service) officers. They worked over three shifts to ensure that the machines were constantly running. It was a tiring job as the machines required a lot of manual input and the huts hung heavy with the smell of oil and the whirring of the wheels. Over 75% of the workforce at Bletchley Park interestingly enough were women such as these.
Decoding the messages
The Imitation Game leads you to believe that once a message was decoded it was simple to read. This was not the case. Again a human element came into play as many of the messages had spelling mistakes, were grammatically incorrect or poorly former. This human factor meant that a team of people had to interpret the decoded messages and translate them into intelligible information in English. If a message was important it was referred on for action, however many of the messages were daily chatter and it was a case of decoding and interpreting as quickly as possible to find the important ones.
As well as using the information from these decoded messages to plan attacks, the information was also used to give the Nazi's false information and check that information had been believed as truth. A network of spies were used, including some double agents to ensure these messages got through.
The round up
If you're nostalgic for the past, appreciate brilliant minds or are interested in the history of computing then Bletchley Park is for you. The site is beautiful, interesting and the displays are engaging. It can get quite busy on a weekend, so if you can visit on a week day. The site is quite large though, with plenty of walking paths and the displays are set up to accommodate large numbers of guests. It was quite busy when we went and it took us around 2 hours to see everything. We aren't dawdlers, so you could definitely spend longer.
All of the turing machines were disassembled after the war, however one has been reconstructed to working order. To see it, you can visit the National Museum of Computing which is on the same site. You can find ticket information here.
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