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Codebreaking, Computers, and Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park Memorial

On our way from Cornwall to Worksop, we spent two days exploring the Bletchley Park museum and the Museum of Computing that is basically next door.

If you saw the TV series, The Bletchley Circle, or the movie The Imitation Game, you would be familiar with Bletchley Park. It was home to the codebreakers in WWII and the site of many great leaps forward in the development of early computers.

Best Kept Secret

The secrecy and security for Bletchley was so tight, that it wasn’t until 1974 that much of the work at Bletchley became known to the public. In 1992 the Bletchley Park Trust was formed to preserve the remaining buildings and create a museum. It’s a fantastic site, and one of the best museums we’ve seen on this trip. Allow yourself plenty of time, we were there about 6 hours and did not see everything.

Alan Turing’s Teddy Bear

There’s an entire section of the museum devoted to Alan Turing’s contribution to the war effort, computing, and his later life. They did not shy away from the horrible way he was treated after the war; his conviction for “gross indecency” (homosexuality) in 1952, his apparent suicide in 1954, the official apology in 2009, and finally the Queen’s pardon in 2014. He was clearly a brilliant man and instrumental in the war effort. It is very sad he was treated so poorly while he was alive. And yes, they have his teddy bear.

There are recreations of the various codebreaking stations, workspaces, offices. etc. A very nice touch is the audio recordings from people stationed at Bletchley telling their stories about life during their time at Bletchley Park.

The Bombe!

Many, if not all of the big computers were dismantled after the war, secrecy being paramount. Many great advances in computing were suppressed as the British didn’t want the rest of the world to know how advanced their technology was. Luckily for us, they saved the plans and were able to re-create a Bombe that you can see in action at Bletchley. I didn’t get a good picture of that one, but here’s Mark next to the replica Bombe at the National Museum of Computing.

The Bombe computer at Museum of Computing

If you go to Bletchley, be sure to take one of the guided tours. It’s included in your admission and our guide had great stories to tell that added to our enjoyment of the museum.

The National Museum of Computing

Did you know that the Computer Museum of America is in Roswell, Georgia? We’ve been and it’s a great collection. The British National Museum of Computing is even bigger and has an entire section on the computers created during WWII at Bletchley Park to crack the codes from the Enigma and the Lorenz machines.

They have a reconstruction of the Turing-Welchman Bombe, a Tunny machine, and a rebuilt Colossus.

There are docents throughout the museum who are very knowledgeable and willing to answer questions. In addition to the WWII machines, they have many of the early computers (these things are HUGE!) as well as galleries about games, personal computers, the internet, etc. They have the world’s oldest original working computer, the Harwell Dekatron Computer (aka the WITCH) that first ran in 1951 and was in use until 1973.

The computer museum is housed in Block H, originally built at Bletchley Park during WWII to house the Colossus computer.

The entire complex at Bletchley Park and the Museum of Computing is well worth a visit, especially if you are interested in WWII, codebreaking, or computers. Definitely allow yourself two days if you want to really go in-depth.

Boats and Swans

We stayed in a small village called Milton Keynes which was quite convenient to Bletchley. There was a little pub with tables outside and we could watch the narrow canal boats. Mark keeps asking if I want to do a canal boat trip next year. Not sure if I’m sold on that yet — basically a floating RV, seems like it would be quite cramped.

We had a lovely dinner at Ye Olde Swan Inn, just across the canal in Woughton on the Green. When we asked about the building’s history, a lovely lady came over who told us about the history of the pub. She said that the building dated back to the 17th century that there was a tunnel that connected St. Mary’s church across the way to the pub! And that secrecy so famous at Bletchley Park? She said her father was stationed at Bletchley during the war, but he never told the family. They didn’t find out until after he died!

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