The Women of Bletchley Park

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.

Come and visit Bletchley Park – 26 July

I’ve been wanting to run a “Women of Bletchley Park” day for a while, and finally we have managed to get it sorted!

The day will include a tour of Bletchley Park by Jean Valentine, and a tour of the National Museum of Computing, including the Colossus and the Bombe. There will be a hands-on Enigma machine demonstration and maybe even a visit to Station X if numbers allow.

Tea, coffee, biscuits and lunch are included in the ticket price of £19.

When & Where
Sunday, July 26, 2009 from 11:30 am – 3:30 pm
The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK3 6EB

(As it stands – we may tweak it a little!)

Arrive: 11.30 Tea/coffee on arrival in the Ballroom

Start: 12.00pm Talks in the Ballroom:

* Suw Charman-Anderson: Welcome and Introduction
* Simon Greenish, Director of Bletchley Park: Update on the current funding status of Bletchley Park
* Sue Black: The campaign to save Bletchley Park

Film showing in the wartime cinema: Women of Station X (The cinema takes 40 – 50 people each, and the film takes 26 minutes, so there may be two showings, depending on how many people sign up.)

There will be wifi in the Ballroom, so if you want to live Tweet or blog, then bring your gadgets!

Lunch: 1.00pm (-ish – depends on film showings)

Tour: Jean Valentine, a Bletchley Park WWII veteran, will to be our expert tour guide for the day, and Lin Jones will be on hand to give a personal tour of the The National Museum of Computing, including the Colossus and the Bombe. We’ll also have a hands-on Enigma machine demonstration, and may be able to offer a visit to Station X – only three people can enter Station X at a time and it’s not normally open to the public, so we’ll have to see how the numbers pan out on this one!

Tea, coffee and debrief: 3.00pm

Departure: 3.30pm

Travel arrangements
You must make your own way to Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Rail Station is 2 minutes walk away. Trains from London leave from Euston, and we recommend the 10:23am train which arrives at Bletchley at 11.17am (no changes).

More travel info:

The ticket cost of £19 includes all Eventbrite and PayPal fees, with any surplus being donated to Bletchley Park. Book online at Eventbrite.

Finding Ada event update, Media140 and OpenTech

I had been planning to do a Finding Ada evening event in June, but I’m afraid to say that I’m going to have to postpone it for a while. I’ve been up to my poor beleaguered eyeballs with work, which is a great and wonderful thing that makes me happy. On top of that, I’ve also been moving house. This has meant that I’ve not had the time to do the basic legwork work that’s required to get an event off the ground and rather than go off half-cocked, I thought it best to postpone it til the end of the summer. I’ll be setting a new date with NESTA, who are kindly providing the venue and will let you all know as soon as that’s done. Please accept my apologies for the delay, but rest assured that it will happen!

In the meantime, I’m putting together a weekend day out to Bletchley Park. I’ll blog more about that when I have a date sorted, but I’m very excited about going to the centre of geek history in the UK!

In other news, I took part in Be2Camp North via Skype a couple of weeks ago, talking about Ada Lovelace Day. It’s always a bit tough to do a talk remotely, but it was fun and I was very happy to be able to take part.

I also spoke at the Media140 conference last week, talking about Ada Lovelace Day and the part that Twitter played in promoting the day. Each panellist had only five minutes to talk about their subject, which meant I couldn’t really go in depth, but Adam Tinworth has a good summary of what I did say. Despite the brevity, it was good to share some of the insights I gained from Ada Lovelace Day (I didn’t mention all of these during my 5 mins):

  • The pledge asked people to do something they were probably going to do anyway, e.g. blog, but asked them to focus on a specific subject, i.e. women in tech. That made it much more attractive and much easier to recruit participants.
  • Using Pledgebank made participation visible, which helps encourage others to join in.
  • Twitter was the most popular mode of communication. @findingada has 1,124 followers now, whereas the mailing list has just 37 members.
  • The Facebook events page was a bit of a fail. Many Facebookers just didn’t seem to be interested in signing the pledge, they were much more inward-facing. In fact, only 300 of the 1200 people who signed up to the Facebook event page also signed the pledge. This means we had over 2800 interested people all together, but it’s impossible to judge exactly how many took part on the day. I won’t use Facebook again next year because it fragmented the conversation and participation in an unhelpful way.
  • Making messages easy to retweet helped the meme spread, as did the fact that it was something that resonated with people.
  • After an initial burst of enthusiasm in the first week, it was hard to keep the momentum going and keep the sign-ups coming in. Next year, I’ll have to think of ways to keep the sign-ups rolling in.
  • Once you hit a certain number of followers, it becomes hard to keep Twitter conversational and it becomes a bit broadcast. I really don’t know what one can do about that.

We will have another Ada Lovelace Day next year, and hopefully will have the time to be a little bit more organised. I honestly wasn’t expecting it to take off the way that it did, so it all rather took me by surprise!

Finally, I’m putting together a session on women in tech for OpenTech 2009, on 4th July, more info on which later. Please do come along.

What do you want the first Finding Ada event to be?

Now that Ada Lovelace Day is behind us, it’s time to think about how to go about nurturing women working in technology. There are many groups already doing this, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not a saturated market. I have already set a date with NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, for our first event which will be on June 10th.

My question to you is, what event would you like to see? My current ideas are:

  • Meet the Conference Organisers: A short talk on what conference organisers are looking for in a speaker, how to bring yourself to their attention and how to get the right experience, followed by a “speed dating” session women can meet the different conference organisers.
  • Meet the Press: A discussion about the way that women in technology raise their own profile in the media, a few tips on dealing with the press, and a chance to talk to different tech journalists.
  • Presentation Skills: A talk on how to give good presentations, followed by lightning talks (strictly 5 minutes each) or PowerPoint Karaoke.

Which of those ideas do you most fancy? Or do you have other ideas that you’d like to float, whether for themes or session speakers? I’m hoping to make a decision on this very soon, so please chip in!

Ada Lovelace Day round-up

Wow, it’s a month since Ada Lovelace Day, and I’m still rather amazed at how well it went. My personal life has been incredibly hectic, with moving house and a trip to the US getting in the way of my finding the time to write this post. But sitting on a plane back to the UK seems like a good time to write a round-up!

Ada Lovelace Day was a phenomenal success, which it wouldn’t have been without you! We ended up with 1,980 people signed up to the pledge, well over 1,100 blog posts in the Collection and countless more scattered across the internet. Over coming weeks I’ll be tidying up the database, removing duplicates and deleting the spam that it has sadly attracted. At the moment, the top four women were:

  1. Ada Lovelace
  2. Grace Hopper
  3. Hedy Lamarr
  4. Barbara Liskov

But that might change when we’ve cleaned things up!

We also received a phenomenal amount of media attention, including a lot of coverage in the press:

Plus Computer Weekly put Ada Lovelace their cover, I appeared on Radio 5 Live and the BBC News Channel (video to come – it’s currently stuck on the hard drive of a non-functional computer).

Overall, I think we can count the first ever Ada Lovelace Day as a massive success! But I could not have done it on my own. I really do need to thank:

We will certainly be running another Ada Lovelace Day next year, and I hope that we will reach even more people. But that’s not the end of things. We have teamed up with NESTA to put on an event, currently scheduled for June 10th, which I’ll be blogging about forthwith. Keep an eye on our Twitter account or join our mailing list to keep yourself up to date with all our news.