Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Here we have the back of the mansion at Bletchley Park. This is the original country house that the first of the codebreakers moved into. Station X was technically only the radio room under the water tank that MI6 used for its agents in the fields. Later in the war, this was moved elswhere due to fears that the Germans would detect the radio communications and attack Bletchley Park, and damage or destroy the codebreaking operations.

The world's first computer was built in this building. Look around, ye mighty, and despair.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

This afternoon, I visited the museum at Bletchley Park, just outside Milton Keynes north of London. This is where Alan Turing and an assortment of mathematicians, crossword experts and linguists managed to break many of the German codes during the second world war, thus shortening the war possibly by years. I will get to what I saw in a while, but first I shall digress a little.

There is an article on Spiked (via Arts and Letters Daily about the British Museum's lack of resources, particularly for new acquisitions. I quote

In my view, the current financial restrictions are symptomatic of a broader problem: there is waning enthusiasm for the traditional functions of museums. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has plenty of money to give out, but collecting and interpreting the artefacts of human history is just not where it's at. The museums that get money today are those that play to the new government agenda of social inclusion: running projects to improve self-esteem or reduce prejudice, or using new technologies to increase community participation. There is little support for the idea that objects and knowledge have a value in and of themselves.

This does appear to be about right. The control of money to be spent on museums in recent years has tended to get under the control of publicists and public relations consultants and advertising agents and media studies graduates and management consultants and all sorts of awful people of this ilk. Many new museums seem to have lots of flashing lights and machines that make weird noises and works of art with meaningless symbolism aimed at superficial politically correct points, but there is nothing with any depth to them. You go there and you see lots of school children pushing buttons, but you don't learn anything.

As an example, the Science Museum in London is a wonderful museum. Here you can see a great many of Britain's extraordinary achievements in Science and Technology. Here is Stephenson's Rocket in the middle of the floor. There is a working reconstruction of Babbage's Difference Engine, so you can see how this curious 19th century wrong alley in the history of computing could have
played itself out. Here we learn about electromagnetism: there we learn about light. The museum is organised into sections depending on the general area of science you are dealing with, but it is cluttered enough that wandering around you can hit on something unexpected and wonderful. Good museums have this quality about them. The British Museum has this quality. Tate Britain has this quality.

However, at the back of the museum is the new (well, newish - it was built in the last five years) Wellcome Wing. This consists of lots of flashing lights, buttons to push which cause sentences like "In the future, we max choose the eye colours of our childrem" to flash on the wall, but there is an amazing lack of any substance at all. It's really dreadful. I don't know who was responsible, but they deserve to be have something awful done to them.

Now what is interesting about Bletchley Park is the fact that it has had almost complete neglect from everyone in authority with an agenda. Bletchley Park is a museum on the site of and commemorating events of immense importance. Here is where Alan Turing broke the codes that maybe won the second world war. If he didn't actually win the second world war, he certainly shortened it by years. Even more importantly than that, here is where the computer was invented. The most important invention of the twentieth century was invented here. And yet, somehow the geeks who did this have or had so little honour amongst the people in charge of their own country that the fact that they did it was not even made public until the 1970s. They have so little honour that a group of people trying to raise money for a statue of Turing a couple of years ago had great difficulty doing so. (And of course, the way Turing was treated after the war is a scandal of great magnitude). They have so little honour in fact that now that Bletchley Park, where all this occurred, is a museum, the museum itself receives no public money at all. The trust in charge of it a couple of years ago applied for some money from the profits of the British national lottery that are supposedly reserved for "good causes" but was refused. Organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage have nothing to do with it either, because it is too far removed from the sorts of things they normally look after.

What we do have, however, is a museum that is run be volunteers, and was put together by people who really do care about it. There are rooms and rooms full of Enigma machines, descriptions of how German and Japanese codes worked in great detail, discussions of how you can reduce the difficulty of breaking cryptographic systems, descriptions of the battles which were won because of intercepted communications. You enter the place and you are greeted warmly and repeatedly by people manning the exhibits who want to talk to you about it for hours. You go on the guided tour and the guide explains to you how Turing was one of the great men of the 20th century and gives the impression that he takes it as a personal affront that not everyone feels that way. Although a lot of the equipment actually used to break codes (including Colossus, the world's first computer) were destroyed by the ultra-secretive British after the war, a lot of them have been reconstructed to working order. (Because of the momentousness of what was achieved at Bletchley Park, it is clearly possible to draw on some impressive expertise for some of this, even if the museum doesn't have any money). There are various interesting bits and pieces related to code making.

In the war, Bletchley Park started out as a country house, and huts were built around it to house more and more people as the scale of the operation grew. At its peak, there were 12000 people working there. Thus, if people or organisations with an enthusiasm for world war II related issues of any kind, or geeky pursuits of any kind wish to set up their own museums or exhibits, there is plenty of space to house them. Lots of geeky or technical people come through to look at the code breaking stuff, and by the way, here is all this other geeky stuff to look at too.

Thus we have exhibits of 1940s era toys, an exhibition of Churchill Memorabilia, a model railway exhibit, a museum on the history of computing - some minicomputer stuff - plus lots of 1970s vintage micros I hadn't seen for a while. A collection of WWII uniforms. A cinema full of lots of classic projectors and film sound systems. Lots of interesting stuff, but nothing really extraordinary. However, what is extraordinary is that the (largely amateur) people who have put together their "history of computers" exhibit can put it in a location where you can say that "By the way, the first computer in the world was built in the next room". This stuff is really good. The people who built it know about it and care about it. In aggregate, it is the sort of museum where you are constantly finding, weird, wonderful and hugely educational stuff as you walk through it.

It may not always remain like this. Until a couple of years ago, interest was such that Bletchley Park was only open to the public every second Sunday. Since then, it has increased to every Sunday, and then to every Saturday and Sunday, and it is now open on weekdays in the afternoons (for just one tour a day, and just for the codebreaking exhibits). Clearly this is a response to the wartime activities at Bletchley Park having been publicised in recent years, by Simon Singh, by Neal Stephenson, by Robert Harris, and by the movie of his book, but it is clear that slowly Britain has woken up to the importance of what happened there. Eventually the government will notice and the museum will find it has more funding and it will become a serious national museum, I suspect. Hopefully the trust that runs it will then be strong enough to prevent the place being trivialised, taken over by public relations consultants, and becoming uninteresting. They might, I think. There is a lot of enthusiasm there, and a lot of substance there, which won't go away easily.

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