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13 October 2009

Alan Turing and Bletchley Park

When I was in the UK, I made a special visit to Bletchley Park. This was part-research for a percolating book-idea, but mostly I went there for wholesome nerdy awesome. And Bletchley delivered.

Ever since I read Neal Stevenson's Cryptonomicon I've wanted to visit Bletchley Park. It's an hour and a bit out of London, and there's a fascinating (and pleasingly lofi) series of museums and things there, including the National Museum of Computing. Also, Ian Fleming used to work there as a gopher, and obviously got some good spy-related ideas because he ended up writing some books that became quite popular.

I meant it when I said lo-fi

Bletchley Park was a code-breaking centre during WW2. It was where a very intelligent man called Alan Turing broke the Enigma Machine - a contraption for encoding messages used by the Germans. It looks like this:

Working at Bletchley Park involved lots of TOP SECRET things, and you couldn't get in or out without a special pass. There were also lots of women who worked there, because working on code-breaking and other surveillancey things was a good way for women to be involved in the war without having to put on special pants and actually go and kill people. And some of those women had kids who had to go to school. So even the kids needed the special pass to get in and out of the Park. These kids were the youngest people ever to sign the Official Secrets Act.

So let's talk about Alan Turing. The good news is that he invented something (called a Turing machine) that ended up evolving into the machine I'm typing this on right now. His use of electronic calculation and algorithming was what enabled the British to break the Enigma machine.

Time Magazine declared Turing as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, and said: "the fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine."

Now here's the bad news. Alan Turing was gay (that bit wasn't the bad news, it's coming next). And during his lifetime, homosexuality was illegal and thought of as a mental illness. Turing was prosecuted in 1952. He had a choice between going to jail or taking female hormone treatment to "cure" him. His security clearance was removed and he was no longer permitted to work for the government. In 1954 he killed himself by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

BUT, on September 10 2009, after a recent petition endorsed by Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan, the British government officially apologised to Turing. Here's what Gordon Brown said:
While Mr Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him... So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better. (full statement here)
Which is awesome and encouraging and only 55 years overdue.

This was from a totally awesome exhibit titled PIGEONS IN WAR. Did you know some pigeons got bravery medals?

Here are some Real Live Boffins working on a Very Old Computer.

And more good news - for the first time ever, Bletchley Park is going to receive National Lottery Funding, so it won't have to just survive on donations any more. Hurrah!

Anyway, I totally recommend a visit. And if you want to read more, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a great read that blends all sorts of computery code-breakingly nerdery into one awesome novel.

1 comment:

genevieve said...

Oooh lovely, thanks for all the great shots, Lili. I thought the wax lady in no. 1 was you at first :-) this laptop's display is a bit dippy in Reader.
can't believe BP was surviving on donations, though, that really sucks.