It’s a great year to be a computer science geek.
This year we’ve seen £30 computers in the form of the Raspberry Pi land in the laps of school children everywhere, ready for coding. The government has realised that syllabuses for ICT are woefully dull, vacuous and uninspired and is resolved to help inspire new generations. Technology news stories are far more prominent in the media than they were ten years ago – slowly, it feels like technical literacy is percolating through society.
It’s also an especially fine year for British technical history and heritage. On Saturday it would have been Alan Turing‘s 100th birthday: an iconic man who gave so much of his wisdom to our craft both in his academic work in theoretical computer science and in his practical work cracking the German Enigma code during World War II.
His influence is everywhere – especially in Manchester where he worked at the university. We have roads named after him, one of our office buildings is called Turing House. In Whitworth park in the centre of town, his statue sits on a bench under the trees.
Turing’s life and work makes me feel humbled and proud. So I’m sure you can imagine I felt very lucky indeed this year to attend the Software Craftsmanship conference in Bletchley Park, iconic site of the World War II codebreakers.
Bletchley Park is an odd place. Very understated and simple. Wooden huts, unchanged since their construction during the forties, litter the estate and the mansion at the heart of the ground, while impressive and pretty, is very mismatched and unusual. Inside, a portrait of Churchill hangs over a fireplace with framed quotes dotted about the neighbouring walls. The most prominent reads:
“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
Elsewhere in the mansion, old books fill the shelves and vintage port sits behind glass cabinets. Photos of old house staff, military personnel, and Polish code breakers line the walls of the corridors. The place smacks of history, reverence and British pride.
Inside the huts and satellite buildings sit the relics of codebreaking history. Dozens of genuine German Enigma machines, valves, wires and pieces of supporting machinery sit in display cabinets. A working Bombe machine whirs into life at the hands of enthusiastic tour staff. Turing’s personal effects, including a teddy bear, rest besides a statue of the man himself.
The staff go into lengthy detail of exactly how the Enigma machines work.
A typist, given a message from his commander, would type the message into the keyboard. As he did so, letters would correspondingly light up which a second operator would write down. This was the encoded message. A third operator would then relay this via morse code. On the other end, 3 other operators would reverse the process with their identically configured machine and so the message would arrive. If intercepted, the listening British forces would have only gibberish to work with. Or so the Germans thought.
Turing and the Polish code breakers found ways to analyse the encoded messages in such a way that they could determine what the settings were on their enigma machines. These settings changed every 24 hours so daily the team would intercept and crack the codes until they knew those settings. For the rest of the day, all intercepted German communications could be decoded and relied to the British intelligence.
It’s fascinating to see these machines at work and hear the story behind them. The impact of breaking the German communications shortened the war by an estimated two to four years. A fantastic saving of lives on all sides. And a potent demonstration of the power of technology and those who wield it.
Bletchley Park relies on donations and visitors – The Software Craftsmanship conference very generously donates all the money raised from tickets to the park and computing museum. Whether a dyed in the wool geek, or a casual passer by, it’s well worth making the pilgrimage. We’re very lucky to have such a rich and remarkable heritage in this country. Why not go see it yourself?
Also, for anyone in Manchester this weekend, The Turing 100 Conference is happening from today through to Monday. Well worth a look.[Pictures of Bletchley are up on Flickr]