Bletchley Park kicks so much ass


30 Responses to “Bletchley Park kicks so much ass”

  1. arkizzle says:

    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).

  2. Cory Doctorow says:

    @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.

  3. noen says:

    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.

  4. Billybob says:

    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.

  5. Anonymous says:

    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.

  6. arkizzle says:

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

  7. Jake0748 says:

    “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.

  8. PeterNBiddle says:

    #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.

  9. OM says:

    …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 :-)

  10. hhype says:

    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.

  11. Anonymous says:

    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.

  12. GregLondon says:

    I’d love to visit there someday.

  13. Vanwall says:

    “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”.

  14. Troglodyte says:

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

  15. Wormella says:

    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…

  16. Nawel says:

    you certainly were happy as a puppy there, huh?

  17. dnewman says:

    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. philipb says:

    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. PeterNBiddle says:

    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.

  20. Kieran O'Neill says:


    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.

  21. Peter Gasston says:

    Of course, being British, it actually kicks arse, not ass.

  22. Anonymous says:

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

  23. DCE says:

    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.

  24. TEKNA2007 says:

    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.

  25. patpatnz says:

    Funnily enough I was there on Thursday last week. Took a stack of photos and generally had a great time. Even though half the park seemed to be closed (quite a few of the exhibits are only open on weekends, it still took us 5 hours to get around the entire place.

    My photos are

  26. Anonymous says:

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

  27. error404 says:

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

  28. clothingoptional says:

    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. :)

  29. MarkHB says:

    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:

  30. Nelson.C says:

    “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.

Leave a Reply