Bletchley Park is an English country house that became the principal centre of Allied code-breaking during the Second World War. It built the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer, cracking the Enigma Machine and thus helping turn the tide of the war against Nazi Germany. But now the institution that preserves that history is in trouble.
The Bletchley Park Trust which runs the site today, which also houses the UK’s National Museum of Computing, has been hit by the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis. It’s now lost over 95% of its income leaving a large gap in its annual budget.
Without any action or external aid, the organization will lose £2m this year as a result of the pandemic and be forced to make a possible 35 redundancies (approximately a third of its workforce) in order to survive.
In a statement Bletchley Park CEO Iain Standen said: “It is with deep regret that I am informing you today that the Trust needs to cut jobs. We have built a very successful heritage attraction and museum at Bletchley Park and its principal strength is its people. However, the economic impact of the current crisis is having a profound effect on the Trust’s ability to survive. We have exhausted all other avenues, and we need to act now to ensure that the Trust survives and is sustainable in the future.”
Bletchley Park closed to the public on 19 March 2020, but reopened 4 July 2020 but with vastly fewer paying visitors.
Alan Turing, one of the pioneering figures in modern computing, and also a tragic one in LGBT history, will soon appear on the U.K.’s £50 note. He was selected from a shortlist of scientists and bright minds so distinguished that it must have made the decision rather difficult.
The nomination process for who would appear on the new note was open to the public, with the limitation this time that those nominated were British scientists of some form or another. Hundreds of thousands of votes and nearly a thousand names were submitted, and ultimately the list was winnowed down to the following dozen (well, 14, with two pairs; descriptions taken from the Bank of England’s summary):
Mary Anning (1799-1847) – a self-taught palaeontologist known around the world for the fossil discoveries she made in her hometown of Lyme Regis.
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984) – whose research revolutionised our understanding of the universe’s smallest matter.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) – who drove the discovery of DNA’s structure, a critical breakthrough in our understanding of the biology of life.
Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) – who made outstanding contributions to our understanding of gravity, space and time.
William (1738-1822) and Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) – a brother and sister astronomy team devoted to uncovering the secrets of the universe.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) – whose research using x-ray crystallography delivered ground-breaking discoveries which shaped modern science and helped save lives.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) and Charles Babbage (1791-1871) – visionaries who imagined the computer age.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) – who made discoveries which laid the foundations for technological innovations which have transformed our way of life.
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) – whose incredible talent for numbers helped transform modern mathematics.
Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) – who uncovered the properties of radiation, revealed the secrets of the atom and laid the foundations for nuclear physics.
Frederick Sanger (1918-2013) – whose pioneering research laid the foundations for our understanding of genetics.
Alan Turing (1912-1954) – whose work on early computers, code-breaking achievements and visionary ideas about machine intelligence made him one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century
Some of the best intellectual company conceivable, to be quite honest. Each of these people was enormously influential in their respective field, although as usual some didn’t get the credit they deserved while living.
Turing was of course an example of this. His work on codebreaking during World War II (alongside his many colleagues at Bletchley Park and beyond, naturally) contributed hugely to the Allied war effort by allowing them to secretly read Axis communications thought to be rendered unreadable by the ingenious Enigma system.
Part of that work, and Turing’s papers on general computing theory written at the time, laid the foundation for many of the concepts that underpin computational systems today. The modern computer is a collaboration among many people in many countries over several decades, but Turing was among the vanguard in theory and execution.
Unfortunately, not only was much of his work required to be kept secret for decades afterwards, limiting the knowledge of his accomplishments to a select few, but after the war he was later persecuted by the British government for being a gay man.
Charged with indecent acts, he was subjected to mandatory chemical “treatment” for his sexuality: humiliating and unjust compensation for a man who saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives and helped create the defining technology of the 20th century in the process. He was found dead in his apartment, having apparently committed suicide, on June 7, 1954.
He was officially pardoned in 2014 after years of consideration and outcry, especially following both the increasing visibility and action of LGBTQIA figures in the present/, and a resurgence of interest in Turing and his collaborators’ contributions to the history of computing and the war effort.
Even with such an extraordinary story, it must have been difficult to pick Turing out from the crowd of luminaries nominated alongside him. You can check out some of the people and thought behind the decision in this video put out by the Bank of England:
The note itself isn’t finalized, but it will resemble the top image. It uses the most famous image of Turing, and will feature notes from his papers and notebooks, a picture of the Automatic Computing Engine (an early digital computer), a quote and signature, and more. Should be a handsome little bill. You’ll see it in circulation starting in 2021.
If you’re feeling flush this week, then perhaps instead of buying a second Bugatti you might consider picking up this lightly used Enigma Machine. These devices, the scourge of the Allies in World War II, are rarely for sale to begin with — and one in such good shape that was actually used in the war is practically unheard of.
The Enigma saga is a fascinating one, though far too long to repeat here — let it suffice to say that these machines created a code that was as close to unbreakable, allowing the Nazis to communicate securely and reliably even with the Allies listening in. But a team of mathematicians and other experts at Bletchley Park in Britain, the most famous of them Alan Turing, managed to crack the Enigma’s code, helping turn the tide of the war. (If you’re interested, a good biography of Turing will of course tell you more, and Simon Singh’s The Code Book tells the story well as part of the history of cryptography.)
The risk of exposure should a machine be captured by the Allies meant that German troops were instructed to destroy their Enigma rather than let it be taken. And at the end of the war, Winston Churchill ordered that any surviving Enigmas be destroyed, but many escaped into the hands of private collectors like the person who got this one. It is thought that only a few hundred remain extant, though as with other such infamous artifacts a precise estimate is impossible.
This machine, however, passed through the fires of WWII and survived not only intact but with its original rotors — the interchangeable parts which would spin in a special fashion to irreversibly scramble text — and only one of its interior light bulbs out. The battery’s shot, but that’s to be expected after so long a duration in storage. If you’re waiting on an Enigma in better condition, expect to be waiting a long time.
Naturally this would be of inestimable value to a deep-pocketed collector of such things (let us hope in good taste) or a museum of war or cryptography. The secrets of the Enigma are long since revealed (even replicated in a pocket watch), but the original machines are marvels of ingenuity that may still yield discoveries and provoke wonder.
Bidding for this Enigma starts at $200,000 on Thursday at Nate D Sanders Auctions. That’s some ten times what another machine went for ten years ago, so you can see they’re not getting any less expensive (this one is in better condition, admittedly) — and it seems likely it will fetch far more than the minimum.