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Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park is a country house which played a very significant role during World War II. From the summer of 1939 it was the home of the British effort to decipher the German radio messages encoded by their Enigma machine.

Enigma was an immensely complex system which depended on a combination of rotating wheels and electrical contacts to encode the message. However in 1932, when the German military were testing the system, the Poles not only broke the code (at that time changing only every few months) but succeeded in constructing an Enigma machine of their own.

In July 1939 the Poles passed their knowlege to the British and French, to the immense benefit of subsequent work at Bletchley when the Enigma code was being changed by the Germans every day.

Soon there were as many as 10,000 people, mainly women, bicycling in from nearby billets to work in wooden huts in the park at Bletchley. By January 1941 the procedure was fast enough to give the British advance warning of the German plan to attack Yugoslavia and Greece. Subsequently the decoders provided invaluable information during the north Africa campaign and around D-Day.

It was crucial that the Germans never realized that Enigma had been cracked, so commanders were ordered not to to act on this secret information until another more conventional source could be identified. Meanwhile word never leaked within Britain of what was happening at Bletchley Park. Churchill, whose codename for this invaluable stream of information was Ultra, described the Bletchley team as 'the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled'.

Prominent among the team was an exceptionally brilliant mathematician, Alan Turing.

Turing made it possible to keep up with the daily change of the Enigma codes by his development of the so-called Bombe, an electro-mechanical which improved the mathematical chances of coming up with the right answer.

By 1943 there was a new challenge in an even more sophisticated code, called Lorenz, which was used by Hitler and his senior commanders. Alan Turing, in a pre-war academic paper, had described a possible computing machine. Another mathematician at Bletchley, Max Newman, now decided that the only chance of deciphering Lorenz sufficiently quickly was by means of such a machine.

His first machine created by Newman was given the name Robinson, in honour of the weird contraptions invented by Heath Robinson. Like them, it depended on everyday commodities - in this case streams of paper tape. But the tape kept breaking.

The solution was found by Tommy Flowers, who constructed a machine doing the same job with thermionic valves or vacuum tubes. It was named Colossus, and it did more than unscrambling the immediate and vital task of unscrambling Lorenz. Colossus broke entirely new ground. It was the world's first computer.

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