If you're in London for the Olympics or at any other time, a visit to Bletchley Park is a must. It's a fantastic destination for tech fans and history buffs alike.
Bletchley Park is an historical treasure outside London that presently is the site of the National Museum of Computers and the National Codes Centre and is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern computing.
During World War II, Bletchley Park was used as a secret government facility for the Government Code and Cypher School, which located there in 1939. Bletchley Park also housed Station X, a secret radio interception station during the war.
Bletchley Park is most famous as being the site where the Enigma code was broken during the war. Mathematicians including Alan Turing developed machines, such as the Bombe and Colossus, that helped to decipher and process communications from German military networks. The Bombe was an electromechanical device that was used to help decipher daily transmissions using the Enigma code. The Colossus was the world's first fully functioning programmable digital computer and used vacuum tubes to perform its calculations.
Thousands of workers, 80% of whom were women, toiled in huts to decipher German, Italian and Japanese coded messages during the war. The computations by both humans and machines during that times were astounding. According to The Secrets of Station X: How Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war by Michael Smith, the Enigma machine had a possibility of 159 million million settings, making the work of the code breakers at Bletchley Park all the more impressive.
The intelligence gathered at Bletchley Park was code named Ultra and contributed significantly to Allied victories during the war. Some historians have said that the war was shortened by up to two years because of Ultra.
Bletchley Park workers were required to sign the Official Secrets Act that many honored until their deaths. The facility was kept secret long after World War II, as coding work shifted to the so-called Cold War with the Soviet Union and its communist allies. A directory of people who served at Bletchley Park is available in their Roll of Honour as many never received the acclaim they deserved during their lifetimes because of the secrecy requirement.
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, served as a Naval Intelligence Officer at Bletchley Park during World War II, and devised such plots as Operation Mincemeat that helped defeat the Germans during the war. Although Fleming was bound by his vow of secrecy, he drew on his experiences at Bletchley Park for his James Bond novels.
Bletchley Park was opened to the public in 1993. Rebuilding of the site continues, partially funded by Google, which contributed $100,000 in 2010 to help preserve Turing's papers at Bletchley Park.
Visiting today you can see the rebuilt Bombe and Colossus machines that were used to decipher code and see exhibits showing how these machines were rebuilt. The site will keep you busy visiting the National Museum of Computers, as well as exhibits including the Churchill Collection, the Toys and Memorabilia Collection, the Bletchley Park Post Office and the Diplomatic Wireless Service. You can tour the mansion as well as the huts where codebreakers worked at deciphering messages. Families with young children will have plenty to see and do including visiting the new playground. The Bletchley Park website has a full list of attractions.
The price of admission includes a tour of the grounds. If you're especially lucky, your tour guide may be a former member of the RAF who served during World War II. Fortunately for us, some of the workers at Bletchley Park never embraced the concept of retirement and continue to work at the facility, providing you with first-hand knowledge of what life was like at Bletchley Park during the war.
Bletchley Park is about an hour's drive from London or a direct train ride from London's Euston Station, then a short walk to the grounds. Bletchley Park by Public Transport.
- The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped to win the war by Michael Smith
- Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers by B. Jack Copeland
- Alan M. Turing: The Enigma Centenary Edition by Andrew Hodges and Douglas Hofstadter