S02E11: Part 2

We also served

Go to Bletchley Park. Do it at once. It has had love and money thrown at it in equal measure, and it shines through. There are fifteen separate high-quality exhibits, and I cannot stress enough how very, very brilliant they are.

You will need at least four hours. Really, you should take six.

Go and see the replica Bombe machine. It clacks merrily away in a room full of machines that were used in this quiet corner of Buckinghamshire to win a war. It’s explained by a cheerful old fellow⁰ who patiently explains the Enigma’s encryption process to a room that is split, 75/25, between eagerness that borders on fetishism and polite bemusement.

Seriously, this is extremely cool

That talk happens in a two-storey converted house, and the upstairs contains real former employees talking about their experiences on video scattered through impressive visual displays.

Do get the multimedia guide, because it’s absolutely riveting. A huge amount of research has gone into it, and experiences from veterans who served here have been captured for posterity. My favourite was an extremely upper-class woman: she talked nonchalantly about working alongside these fellows who were very close to genius, but seemed close to homicide when asked what they were like: “very untidy!” was the curt response. It also comes with a pair of natty headphones that give you an immensely jaunty air:

I cannot express how much I look like my dad in this photo. You’ve probably never met my dad, but at least now you’d recognise him in a crowd.

Do not go to the shop if you like both books and a full bank balance: you will leave without one or the other. For me, I chose books.

I chose…wisely

I’ve come away with a spectacular haul of slim puzzle books, a thicker puzzle book, and The Code Book by Simon Singh. I can’t commend it enough: it’s fascinating and completely absorbing. I am entirely hooked, and I offer any one of my readers the opportunity to commune with me via Vigenère cipher.¹ My inbox is open.

Throughout the site are various exhibitions designed to get you to understand how Enigma works. I was about three hours through before I felt reasonably sure I got it — there was an immensely enjoyable 3-D X-Ray rendering of the innards of an Enigma machine and it sparked a lightbulb moment. It feels as though everything is designed with that sense in mind: a feeling on the part of the people who built these exhibits that they themselves could barely believe that this had happened. The massive concentration of brainpower that was unleashed there is really quite something and it’s testament to a principle I cling to today: free up people to do good work and they will stun you with their brilliance.

They will also sometimes hurl coffee cups into the lake rather than return to the canteen, where their thought processes will be interrupted by people talking to them. Accept that as part of the cost of doing business.

There is a reek of privilege everywhere. It really can’t be avoided — as much as it’s played down, the people who were recruited were those privileged few who’d had the opportunity to learn German, Japanese, Italian and so on at school. Daughters of aristocrats were the first called up to support the staff because “We can trust that sort of person to keep secrets”. It’s a sign of the times: today, all three branches of the security and intelligence agencies are making massive progress to recruit more diverse individuals.

Let me close by saying that there’s a restaurant in Hut 4 that serves incredibly tasty, fantastically cheap food to refuel you after the literally tens of kilometres you’ll walk. And if nothing else it’s a lot of fun to walk around and, with hundreds of other people, quietly mutter

Hang on, say that bit again?

⁰ Don’t expect to see many women. Although there are many fascinating exhibits about the Wrens —members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service — there wasn’t anyone presenting that wasn’t a robot or a cheerful old fellow. It was a bit surprising, and something I hope will change soon.

¹ I’m sort of tempted to build a decoder based on the fascinating methods contained in the book, but I fear it has both already been done and would be of interest only to arch-geeks like myself.²

² To be fair, this is also a point in its favour.

S02: E11 Part 1

The National Museum of Fish

On Thursday my partner and I headed to Milton Keynes to spend a long weekend GEEKING OUT. We went to Milton Keynes for its proximity to Bletchley, the historic home of the Codebreakers.

There are two interesting places on the site of Bletchley Park. The first is Bletchley Park, and the second — hidden away at the back — is the National Museum of Computing.

I’ll start with TNMOC, as they like to call themselves. They give you a map at the entrance, and it sums up entirely, in a single image, the entire spirit of the place: earnest, geeky, and lacking in polish.

There is so much that’s glorious and good there. The depth of knowledge the staff have is unparalleled, and they are incredibly willing to share stories and explain complex ideas patiently and, in my case, multiple times. Apparently the following was a key understanding in how to break the complex Lorenz cipher:

A + C = F

F + C = A

but I’m afraid by the fifth time I was too scared to ask how and just nodded sagely. Answers on a postcard please.

But on the other hand, everything is very slapdash. For example: they have a series of wonderful collections of automatic calculating devices that appear to have simply been thrown into a cabinet together. It would have been wonderful to see the evolution of these fascinating machines from slide rules to the modern calculator, but instead it was just a mess of wonderful, unstructured pieces.

With that being said, the display and explanation of the Tunny and Colossus machines were worth the price of admission alone. They are incredible feats of love and dedication. Since they were used by secret organisations, both the machines and their designs were all (supposedly) destroyed at the end of the Second World War. By virtue of sheer determination, a group of hobbyists, amateurs, and former engineers have recreated these remarkable calculating machines.⁰ Colossus in particular is an incredible machine; an early calculator that could do addition of five-bit binary words at an incredible rate for the time.

The guide spoke assertively about the machine, and then gave us all a little slip of paper to translate. For fun, here’s the slip:

Ooooh, mysterious!

It uses the five-bit ITA2 code to encode Roman letters to dots and blanks.

It was a really pleasant way to end the exhibit and a lovely, tiny peek into the work of the machines and — more importantly — the human beings behind them.

The most pertinent example of this allowed for the creation of these incredible machines: a single mistake by a German officer allowed a brilliant mathematician named William Tutte to divine the structure of the encoding machine without ever seeing it.

This is an absurdly impressive intellectual feat. Completely, utterly, mind-bendingly impressive.

It is approximately equivalent in my mind to seeing a single drop of blood and then deducing the entire structure of the circulatory system. Of an alien.

But I digress. TNMOC is a diverting couple of hours and the massive machines are brilliant. But Bletchley Park is far, far superior. So I’m going to dedicate an entire blog to that subject.

⁰ I will be writing more about ciphers and cracking these the moment I actually understand them