Bletchley Park
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Bletchley Park: The birthplace of the Computer. Quantum Zeitgeist visits after lock-down

August 7, 2020

The home of the computer is a place that often gets overlooked. In the United Kingdom during the war, a mathematician and logician named Alan Turing and a whole host of other individuals (Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and countless more) were responsible for breaking the WW2 Nazi codes on the site of a mansion house: Bletchley Park. The byproduct of this effort was the computer which has become ubiquitous. We visited after lock-down to see where the beginning of modern history began.

Bletchley Park

In recent times, the popularity of the park has increased, partly due to films that have exposed the work that went on there. Bletchley Park is a mansion and estate in Milton Keynes. Constructed during the years after 1883 for the financier and politician Sir Herbert Leon. It is not its pre-war history that has made BP (Bletchley Park) a household name.

The park itself is a wonderful idyll as you would expect with the old house remaining intact and with its vast green parkland surround. That’s not to say that the house was not used during the war effort – even the main ballroom got used for printing out German coded messages.

If you visit you can see inside the house and some of the original oak paneled rooms which appear to be fully original or at least restored to its original former glory.

The WW2 German Enigma Machine, used for encoding messages between divisions. The work at Bletchley Park broke the encryption protocols.
The WW2 German Enigma Machine, used for encoding messages between divisions. The work at Bletchley Park broke the encryption protocols.

However aside from the Gothic styled house, much of the code-breaking was done in the purpose built huts that dot the grounds. These “huts” each had different purposes but much of the work was done by the typically female code breakers in these buildings, translating, decoding and attempting to decipher German messages that were encrypted by two machines now synonymous with code breaking: Enigma and Lorenz.

The aim of the work was provide an advantage to the war effort and that much is certainly true as the code breakers were instrumental in the diversionary tactic of the allied invasion of Normandy where the intelligence gathered at Bletchley was used to confirm the allies bluff was indeed working (the Germans were fed false information that the invasion target was Calais). By breaking the codes, the allies confirmed that the Nazi’s had indeed swallowed the false intelligence of a Calais landing.

The Modern Computer – it was invented at Bletchley Park

One challenge that the Enigma code machines had many settings, a code wheel a plug board – creating too many possibilities to crunch through. The perfect use case for using automation. The results of this automation ended up creating “Bombes” for solving these combinatorics problems and latterly the more useful Colossus computer which had architecture and paper-tape, something that is a lot more familiar to computer science students. The fundamentals have not changed much since then. Paper tape was replaced by magnetic tape, then magnetic disk, then solid state devices.

The rotor wheels and plug board from one of the Enigma machines. The Bombe device at BP aimed to recreate the coding of Nazi messages.
The rotor wheels and plug board from one of the Enigma machines. The Bombe device at BP aimed to recreate the coding of Nazi messages.

There is a recreation of the Original Bombe and Colossus computers at the park. Sadly only the recreated Bombe is available to see right now. The Colossus machine is housed in the nearby National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), which is due to open next month. However if you want some insight into how the code breakers used the early computing devices there are plenty of interactive exhibits where you’ll get an hands on idea about how the Nazi codes were broken.

The Bombe device that was used to break the Nazi code.
The Bombe device that was used to break the Nazi code.

The work at Bletchley Park was classified – which means that the technologies invented there were not explicitly talked about until (sometime in the 1970’s). You might be forgiven that the Americans were responsible for the invention of the modern computer, but that accolade goes to Alan Turing and the team at BP. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical underpinning of the modern computer, one of which the author is using right now to type on.

Footage of the Recreated Bombe in action.

Alan Who?

Alan Turing thankfully only now is getting the recognition he deserved. Sadly Alan Turing took his own life in the 1950’s (due to being targeted for his sexuality) and never got a chance to see the computing revolution that he unleashed on the planet. Posthumously pardoned his treatment post war was nothing short of despicable, particularity as he was in many ways a war hero whose innovative work saved countless lives and likely ended the war much much sooner.

Alan Turing has provided so much seminal work in some many fields from Church-Turing thesis, Turing Machine, to insight into AI (Artificial Intelligence). In some ways Alan Turing was light-years away in his thinking. Perhaps one of the UK’s greatest thinkers.

Alan Turing's Desk and Office at Hut 8 Bletchley Park
Alan Turing’s Desk and Office at Hut 8 Bletchley Park

Max Newman

Perhaps a less well known name, Max Newman was the creator of Colossus (one), the world’s first operational, programmable electronic computer. The work that went on with Turing, Bill Tutte etc meant mechanizing the insight from Bill Tutte’s work (who was one of the most seminal Graph Theory experts).

There are many more players in the history behind BP, but we won’t mention them all – but we will mention the thousands of code breakers who provided insight into cracking the Nazi codes toiling away in the 1940’s huts in the grounds of BP.

An example of the Huts where code-breakers worked on breaking Nazi codes during WW2. Alan Turing worked in Hut No 8.
An example of the Huts where code-breakers worked on breaking Nazi codes during WW2. Alan Turing worked in Hut No 8.

Parallels with Quantum Computing

When you see the combinatorics problems and the primitive devices on display, it brings up the question of where we are in the cycle of Quantum Computing. We seem to have some clear parallels such as the fact that Quantum computers take a room and there are many possible technologies that might provide the backbone of computing: the Qubit. They could be semiconductor or photonic – with everything still to play for.

However whatever technology dominates the room sized rooms offering just a handful of qubits maps nicely onto these primitive early computers with limited useful applications. Only now can we see looking back what those primitive machines gave birth to.

Clearly what excites us is the fact that it feels we have been here before. Few could have imagined the impact that classical computing is having on our lives as computing power is seeping into every aspect of our lives. The same could be true from Quantum. Very few right now understand where it can or will lead, but we have a whiff of possibilities – just like the early work on Colossus machines. We simply don’t know what possibilities can be uncovered by this new paradigm in computing: Quantum Computing.