Bletchley Park UK, and Wartime Computing Research

Pictured above is the Colossus, one of the earliest electronic digital computers ever made (circa 1944).

Bletchley Park

"Bletchley Park" is not a company or organization name, but refers to a location in the United Kingdom where extremely valuable wartime research was conducted in early computing and codebreaking. Bletchley Park is an estate situated between London and Birmingham, England. It was the sight of highly intense, highly secret intelligence work during World War II.

Activities at Bletchley Park were so secret, that details were not made public until 1975. Bletchley was referred to under a variety of code names, such as "BP," "War Station X," "Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)," and others. The focus of the work was project Ultra. Ultra was the code name for activities to decrypt high level enemy communications in the war.

The Germans had developed complex cipher codes and encryption methods, including a machine called the "Enigma."

The Enigma was a machine used to code messages based on a series of rotating wheels.

The German High Command intelligence service, called the Abwehr, used one version of Enigma, while the German military used a slightly different version. The two versions presented two different problems for the Bletchley Park team in breaking the Enigma codes. The Germans were using the Enigma machines during the 1930's. In the late 1930's, before the breakout of war, the British Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) moved from its location in London, to Bletchley Park. In 1939, there were only about 100 people located at Bletchley. By 1942, the Bletchley teams were capturing and reading some 4,000 German military signals per day.

Bletchley Park was essentially a British intelligence operation from its earliest days. In September 1943, a special agreement was signed that allowed the incorporation of certain U.S. members into the British Ultra project. By 1944, there were over 7,000 people there in various capacities and on various projects. The Bletchley Park location was probably chosen originally since it was not far from railways which ran north, south, east and west, and its proximity to a roadway to London (now the "A5").

The Bletchley estate of approximately 581 acres, was originally part of Etone Manor and later owned by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, a London Stockbroker. The GC&CS obtained the property around 1938. During the war, many additional structures were added, called simply Huts (e.g., Hut 1, Hut 2, etc.) where many of the assigned personnel conducted their secret work.

One of the achievements of the Bletchley team was the creation of Colossus, a large, programmable electronic digital computer that was used to decrypt encoded German messages. The Colossus was used as early as February 1944, and nine improved versions of the machine were made over time.

Bletchley teams also designed machines called "Bombes" which were electromechanical code breaking devices used to discover the wheel settings for Enigma keys, and another machine called "the Baby," which was used to encipher key words to assist in the decryption of Enigma messages. The "Bombes" and the "Baby" devices were made by the British Tabulating Machine Company.

Among the many dedicated individuals who worked at Bletchley Park were Cambridge University mathematics professor Max M.A. Newman, Alan Turing (a major contributor to the development of the Bombe), C. E. Wynn-Williams (inventor of first electronic particle counter used in physics research), Allen W. M. Coombs (Ph.D., Glasgow University), D. W. Babbage, (descendent of Charles Babbage), Ian Fleming (intelligence expert and author of James Bond novels), Sidney Broadhurst, Lewis Powell (later to become Justice Powell of the Supreme Court), and Donald Michie, a codebreaker.

 

 

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