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...
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