Every computer scientist must visit Bletchley Park! And, for that matter, anyone interested in computing history, spycraft, or World War II. While on a short trip to London, we spent Sunday afternoon on a brief visit to this fascinating museum at the once-secret site where the British cracked the cryptographic codes of the Germans, during the war, and where, in effect, the modern computing era had its beginnings. The story was the subject of the recent movie, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Read on, and check out the photo gallery.
Maintained as a national secret until the 1970s, the UK finally acknowledged its existence in the 1970s. Only then did the public become aware of the tremendous significance of the innovative work done at Bletchley. The Brits managed to crack the incredibly complex cypher used by the Germans, which was produced by the Enigma machine – enabling the Allies to learn the movements of trips and ships. Historians estimate that this breakthrough shortened the war by two years and saved thousands of lives.
The tour guide was knowledgable and very interesting. For me, though, the highlight was learning about the computing innovations from Alan Turing and his compatriots – the Bombe and the Colossus, which predated many of the commercial electronic computing machines that came after the war. I really enjoyed spending a few minutes in Turing’s office!
We happened to visit on their special “1940s day”, which encouraged visitors to show up in 1940s clothing and to stroll the grounds visiting exhibits of civilian and military memorabilia from that era. It was truly impressive to see how many people are into this stuff and how far they would go to dress the part.
The exhibits, spread across many of the original buildings from the WWII era, are really well done. I highly recommend taking the hour-long free guided tour – our guide was really knowledgeable and engaging. The museum is easily reached by a direct train from London, in about an hour; the train station is two blocks from the entrance. You’ll want 2-4 hours to see the place. If you are a computer scientist, you really need to visit!
More photos in the gallery.