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Computers

A Tour of Bletchley Park: Codebreaking that helped win WWII, and the birthplace of the modern computer

An Enigma wrapped inside a tour wrapped inside a slideshow. Or, O XANFYN DQZZXNCLG VIOM POX O AXQSL VN.

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Geoffrey Morrison

MI6 called it Station X. The Germans didn't know it existed. It's widely accepted the cutting edge work there shortened World War II by more than two years.

It's not just the birthplace of modern cryptology, but of the very computer you're reading this on.

Now it's simply Bletchley Park, and here's a photo tour of one of the most important, and once secretive, locations of the twentieth century.

For as big a city as London is, it doesn't take long to get out into the countryside. Bletchley's distance from London, and largely central location to other important towns like Oxford and Cambridge, made it an ideal location. Enough so, that in 1938 the head of the Secret Intelligence Section (MI6) bought the Bletchley grounds to house the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).

Here descended some of the greatest minds in the realm: mathematicians, linguists, chess players, and more. At its peak, over 9,000 people, most aged 20 to 30, worked to break and read the enemy's encrypted transmissions.

The Tour

An hour train ride from Euston station, and a quick walk from Bletchley station, the Bletchley Park museum is a quiet collection of buildings on lovely British country grounds.

After you enter, there's a short film that talks about the war. Then, you're given a customized iPod touch and sent out onto the grounds. The iPod includes video introductions to each area, plus additional videos with interviews of people who worked there, details on the various machines, and more.

My trip was mildly marred by some "British Sunshine" (that is, rain), but since most of the interesting aspects of Bletchley Park are inside, this was hardly an issue.

Most of the key buildings are open to the public, including many rooms of the Mansion, and all of Huts 3, 6, and 11, where much of the code/cipherbreaking was done. In the Block B building there's an excellent exhibition with even more detail about what life was like in Britain at the time, along with descriptions of real-life spies and double agents, and a section on Alan Turing himself.

Perhaps the coolest part of Block B is a working Bombe replica, since all were destroyed after the war.

Around the corner from the main museum area is the National Museum of Computing, which is a walk down memory lane (pun intended) for any computer buff. Or it will just make you feel old, seeing your first computer in museum exhibit.

Here, though, they have a rebuilt Colossus, the first electronic and programmable computer. It's the size of a room, with enough vacuum tubes to make an audiophile go weak in the knees.

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Geoffrey Morrison

Code/Decode

I spent most of a day at Bletchley Park, and I probably could have spent a few more hours. Ever since I read Stephenson's awesome Cryptonomicon I've been fascinated with codes and ciphers, and this era of code breaking in particular. Bletchley Park is well worth the visit for anyone so interested, but also anyone into WWII history in general, since this was such a key part.

Check out the full photo tour I took.

If you want even more photos and info, CNET's Daniel Terdiman also took the tour a few years ago.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an email! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.