Bletchley Park kicks so much ass

Yesterday, I got one of the best and most memorable birthday presents of my life -- a trip to the legendary Bletchley Park, site of the British WWII codebreaking effort, where Turing and co invented modern computer science and cryptography. The site is just as I'd imagined it -- a rotting, lovely old mansion surrounded by modest, slope-shouldered sheds with a variety of exhibits staffed by knowledgeable, friendly geeks who clearly find it all every bit as exciting as I do.

The exhibits are a nice mix of technical and historical, ranging from a truly impressive collection of memorabilia related to Winston Churchill (who visited Bletchley and congratulated the women and men there on their excellent work), including his school report-card that makes him out to be a villainous, disruptive and scattered child; to a series of exhibits of vintage wartime toys. There's a museum of ancient cinematographic equipment complete with a beautiful little theatre that shows reels of vintage newsreels and propaganda films. And of course, there are the computers and related devices.

The cipher machines and radio equipment naturally form the centerpiece of the museum, and there's an entire computer history museum onsite (it was closed, with the strangest sign I've ever seen, words to the effect of, "This site is closed for maintenance. Enter at your own risk. You may be escorted off the grounds by security if you are caught here." Huh?) along with the notorious Nazi Enigma machine that was kidnapped in 2000 and ransomed back (the crime was never solved). The historic material on the Enigma (which began life as a commercial product before the war!) is really excellent, as are the technical explanations of how it worked.

But best of all are the "rebuilds" -- reconstructions from plans of the bombes (parallel decoding machines) and Colossus (the massive and gorgeous machine that was one of the earliest general-purpose computers. These hulking beasts are real artisanal pieces, with the hand-crafted, prideful look of devices built by loving and obsessive engineers who really, really care about their work.

Walking the grounds, I got a real sense of the lives of the people who'd worked at Bletchley, through a series of exhibitions that included quotations from oral histories about the dress, romance, food, family life and internecine conflict that characterized Bletchley Park during the war years. The exhibit on clothing was especially memorable, if only because it could bring home the gold for Britain in the 2012 Scariest Mannequin event, as was the astoundingly cool room devoted to the wartime use of messenger pigeons, including replicas of the awards given to especially brave and dedicated birds.

We spent three hours on site and barely scratched the surface. We had hardly any time to look at the war-plane, didn't get to the gigantic model railroad exhibit, didn't see the whole film presentation at the Enigma theatre, and only got the most hurried of walks around the American Gardens -- and we missed the mansion tour altogether. I could have easily spent eight or more hours there, and still wanted for more. Just the tantalizing mini-lecture I got on the Colossus rebuild from one of the electronics engineers who worked on it was enough to pique my interest, and I could have spent an hour looking at the details in Turing's office.

The Trust that runs Bletchley Park has done a really fine job, and is clearly thinking creatively about the best way to continue to fund their operations. The mansion's slate roof is in need of a multi-million-pound replacement, and they're selling "genuine fragments" of the existing slate -- holy relics of crypto's formative years, as well as soliciting donations and selling memberships. But most intriguing was the idea of renting out part or all of the site for parties and weddings -- maybe for my 40th birthday in three years...
Link, Link to my photos


  1. Isn’t Bletchly great?

    It’s especially cool considering that they put everything they could move into the main courtyard in the early 50’s and destroyed the lot. Everything that is there now has been rebuilt or returned…

    The Colossus is amazing. I could watch that tape go round for hours… so much clever engineering done by some very clever people.

    I have a few dead tubes from the collossus that the curator gave me that are prized possesions.

  2. Sugoi!

    I’m really glad you got there. It’s really not far out of London.

    And a 40th birthday party on the site is a truly awesome idea.

  3. The mansion is also a small “Science Park” and bits of it are rented out to tech companies.

  4. Fantastic! I’d no idea Colossus and the Bombes had been rebuilt – for some reason (something I read?) I thought the machines and the plans had been destroyed after the war.

    Do they work? I’d love to see a demo of the machines working in tandem with their Enigma. What a blast it would be to create a message on the latter and watch the computers clatter away as they work on it.

  5. Excellent birthday present, and thanks for the pictures. I hope it adds something to your next reading of Cryptonomicon.

    … with the strangest sign I’ve ever seen, words to the effect of, “This site is closed for maintenance. Enter at your own risk. You may be escorted off the grounds by security if you are caught here.”

    I take it to mean: “You are an adult. Here are our wishes. Here are your choices. Here are the consequences. We hope you choose wisely. Good luck.” I love it. Not the kind of signage one is likely to find in the States.

  6. The award for animal courage (what a strange idea)is called the Dickin Medal if memeory serves.

  7. This is the best blog post you’ve whipped up in a long time, Cory. You should do more like this. Everyone likes to read the tales of the kid in the candy store. :)

  8. Bletchley Park is quite wonderful. It was quite emotional to be there, with a strong sense of “This is where we came from – these are our roots”. The Colossus II rebuild there actually works, which is seven shades of marvellous. Entertainingly, there’s a Pentium II machine running an emulator of same written in “modern programming language” according to Tony Sale, which only just keeps up with the monster!

    There’s an odour to Colossus that’s just incredible. Ozone, warm Bakelite and … well… I can’t describe it really. It’s the smell of roasting computrons.

    Some related watching here:

  9. “I told you to leave no stone unturned, but I didn’t expect you to take me so literally.” – Winston Churchill, on meeting Bletchley Park’s code-breakers.

  10. @9: I was told the story of the PII as well, but I asked if that was because the machine was optimized for massively parallel codebreaking while a PII is optimized for procedural linear execution and the guy sheepishly confirmed it. IOW: in every domain EXCEPT massively parallel problem-solving, Colossus is slow as paint, but it is very good at that one domain.

  11. As an ex BT engineer I attended many courses at Bletchley park as it used to be owned by BT as a training center.
    Back then we knew nothing of it’s history and we slept in the same rooms used by the original engineers.
    The equipment was pretty well strewn about and it’s amazing to think it was left basically to rot considering it’s historical significance.
    How different things were back those days, I was 18 and we brought back about 100 quids worth of Chinese ground bomb fireworks for Guy Fawkes night and buried them in the grounds of the house.
    The resultant explosion sent a mushroom cloud about 200ft in the air and everyone including the instructors cheered.
    Imagine the consequences these days.

  12. I am so damn jealous. I lived in London for 8 months, and somehow I didn’t hear about this, or forgot about Bletchley. How did that happen?

    I’d totally give them money to maintain this place.

  13. #4 – DCE

    They did torch the plans. Fortunately collossus was built using standard telephone switches and there were enough personal photos for them to figure it out.

  14. As TEKNA2007 pointed out, Bletchley Park figured prominently in Cryponomicon, which was the reason that we included it as a must see when we visited London a few years back. We of course toured the computer museum since a sign like that begs to be ignored or followed depending on your interpretation (as long as it means you take a look). I still have a punch card I made on one of the leftover machines there.

    I remember some interesting conversations with the gentlemen that were building the exhibit Colossus, Back then they hadn’t completed the thing. We attended a lecture in the mansion and a guided tour of the facility before we set off on our own. We were embarrassed to already know much of the history due to our obsession with the subject at that time. I had a cult of personality attack walking around and peeking into some of the same huts that Alan Turing and the other code breakers had worked in.

    Colossus was actually the first programmable digital electronic computer, but no one knew about it until many years later. The site was so little known back in the day because those that had worked there kept there silence for decades and decades after the war. They took their duties and the secrecy of their work very seriously. It all seems very British.

  15. I’m jealous! I’ve always wanted to visit, but having recently re-read Cryptonomicon it just makes all the more fascinating.

  16. We went a few years ago, when the fascinating Computing Museum (RetroBeep) was still open.

    I remember them saying at the time they didn’t have any funds to keep it going or maintain it, and as it, as the rest of Bletchly, is run by volunteers the didn’t have resources to house it’s fascinating collection anywhere else.

    It looks like they found some funding and it’s in the process of reopening: hence your odd signs…

    Glad you enjoyed it, I’d happily go again too…

  17. It’s excellent to see such a resounding cheer for Bletchley Park here on BB. It would be painful to see the place go to ruin because of a lack of interest. So thanks for sharing your Birthday trip.

    My grandfather worked there, and in an interview with him and Christopher Evans, he explained to Evans that there was no iteration of Colossus, when Flowers switched it on for the first time, it just worked. Really inspiring. If anyone would like a copy of the interview audio file – do let me know.

    Interview: Newman in interview with Christopher Evans ‘The Pioneers of Computing: an Oral History of Computing, London Science Museum, 1976

  18. My grandfather’s lifelong friend (& lifeline out of Nazi occupied Austria) worked there during WWII. Not as an engineer but as an academic & native German speaker, to interpret the decoded messages. Being a persecuted then exiled Jew he was considered safe with the secrets of his job.

  19. I had no idea this place still existed, in any form. YAY! where so much started :)

    Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention Cory, I will be going there as soon as I can find the time (if only to see that AMAZING stacked-slate statue, truly beautiful).

  20. Did any exhibts mention the price Turing paid for his sexual orientation?

    Yeah, what they did to him was criminal. The BBC documentary Dangerous Knowledge (part one of nine on YouTube) tells a bit of his story. Those who like Bletchley Park might like this documentary.

  21. Also, ditto: my favourite BB post in ages. Glad you had the time to do it justice in words :)

  22. “Did any exhibts mention the price Turing paid for his sexual orientation”?

    In Cory’s link to his photo set you will see at least one picture of a sign explaining how shabbily Turing was treated and how tragic his death was.

  23. I’m so pleased you liked BP. I worked there for a year or so, teaching people how to catalogue museum collections. Plus I got to point out to Security Types that they’d handed over some Rather Secret documents by mistake.

    As with so many museums, it was a privilege to work with the volunteers. The histories we worked with were profound. I particularly remember the volunteer talking about the difficulties of keeping the records straight for individual women, who were serially widowed.

  24. …Man, all that phone wire reminds me of when I was a kid, and I bought a 30′ scrap of official Ma Bell phone exchange wire at a garage sale for $5. This had like 100 color-coded twisted pairs in it – wide red/short black stripes twisted with short red/wide black stripes, for example – and when the outer insulator was stripped away, I twisted these wires together to make a bunch of cheap posable “Space Men”. The irony is that I’d originally grabbed the wire to repair four Major Matt Mason figures I’d bought from other garage sales to go with the one I’d still had from 1966, but the wire gauge was too thin *and* it was a bitch anyway to feed wire through that neoprene rubber!

    …One of these days, just for gits and shiggles, I need to get some of that wire and do an OMBlog feature on how I made them, showing how much fun color-coordination can add to making things out of junk :-)

  25. “The Secret Life of Machines” episode “The Word Processor” had some nifty early computer film, the Ferranti Pegasus most memorably, with it’s valve technology.

    When I was in England in the early ’80s, I couldn’t get in to Bletchley Park – I was so bummed. That same trip I visited a French flight museum open to the public located on a sensitive site – the signs just didn’t explain that you may be carted off, they warned you that you might be shot on sight if you deviated from the path – a large computer lab and a wind-tunnel were in sight, so I guess it was a good thing I followed the “yellow rubber line”.

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