The Women of Bletchley Park

by Suw on August 7, 2009

Like me, you’ve probably seen documentaries about the codebreakers who were based at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. The story of Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, is a deservedly well known one, but it’s rare for us to hear about the thousands of women who also worked at Bletchley Park. These women made up the majority of the staff at Bletchley and were essential to the codebreaking operations that were key to our eventual war victory.

On 26th July, over 40 of us trouped up to Bletchley Park to find out more about the women who worked there during WWII. We started off with short introductions by Kelsey Griffin, Bletchley Park’s Director of Museum Operations, Sue Black from BCS Women, and Jean Valentine, our tour guide. She gave us a history of the Park, including a critique of the rather eclectic architecture! To get us into the swing of things, we were given a demo of an Enigma machine:

We then moved on to the wartime cinema, which was crammed with period cinematic equipment. (I pretty much had to prise my other half, Kevin, off the antique projectors!) The film we watched, The Women of Station X, was put together as part of BCS Women’s Women of Bletchley Park project.After lunch, we were treated to a tour by Jean Valentine, who had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. She had operated one of the Bombe machines, which were designed to decode messages generated by the German Enigma machines. Jean gave us an amazing insight, not just into the work that she and her colleagues did at Bletchley, but also what it was like to live there. Her narrative was fascinating and funny, and often poignant too.

Bletchley has built replicas of both the Bombe and the Colossus, which was used to decode encrypted teleprinter messages. The Colossus is, indeed, colossal, and the working replica makes a bit of a racket. Watching it in action, complete with streaming tape and flashing lights, gives you some idea of what it might have been like to have worked with it. Unfortunately there was no one available to give us a demonstration of the working Bombe that is also housed there in the National Museum of Computing.

We ended the day with a fun look at the history of computing in the musuem. I was tickled to see that they had three of the computers that we had when I was a kid: the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum and the Amstrad PC1512. (Sadly, the didn’t have the ZX80, which was my very first look at a computer!)

If you’re even vaguely into computers, cryptography or codebreaking, then Bletchley Park is well worth a visit. It relies wholly on ticket sales for its income, although it is trying to raise some money for essential repairs. Sadly, it has been left to rot and there is a lot of work that’s needed to just keep our history safe. Sue Black told me, “they are desperately short of funds and have no sustainability or security, if faced with any sort of crisis they would have to close for good.” It’s a few minutes walk from the Bletchley train station and trains go regularly to and from London so you have no excuse not to hop on one on the weekend and go visit! But more than that, go and visit Save Bletchley Park and get involved in saving some of our country’s most important computing heritage.

Several of our group have blogged about the day, including Laura James, Pernickety (lots of fab photos!) and Sue Black.

Many thanks to Kelsey, Sue, Jean and everyone else from Bletchley Park for helping organise the trip and making it such a memorable day.

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