Posts tagged History
For all of the historic technological innovations that the team at Bletchley Park’s National Museum of Computing History has assembled, it’s humbling to witness that it’s the human tales of the pioneers, the geniuses and the unswervingly dedicated that remain at the centre of the story. Perhaps never was this more in evidence than at the grand unveiling of the Tunny Gallery on Thursday, a tribute not only to bleeding-edge technology but also to the ingenuity and bloody-minded belligerence of those who worked tirelessly to intercept and decrypt messages sent between German High Commanders during World War 2.
The Tunny machine, recreated over a 10-year period using skip-salvaged British Telecom telephone exchange hardware, is the final cog in the message deciphering process taking input from the monumental Colossus computer (also reconstructed and humming in the room next door) and outputting invaluable clear-text German messages. Despite the technology, machinery and manpower a message captured by the 1,000ft-high aerials deployed to intercept the German transmissions still took an average of four days to be deciphered.
It’s ironic that the key to reading the German messages wouldn’t have been discovered at all were it not for a careless error by a German operator who retransmitted the same message twice without changing the encryption wheels on the German ciphering machine (the Lorenz SZ42, an original of which also has pride of place in the Tunny Gallery) and literally handed over the keys for unlocking the German code to the Allied forces.
Astonishingly, the ATS women operating the machines had very little idea of the significance of their efforts. None could read German, only recognising the occasional mention of Hitler or other well-known German commanders. Even the locals in Bletchley were unaware of the activities taking place within, believing the Nazi-defying code-breaking hub to be little more than a Littlewoods football pools processing centre, unaware that the messages being decrypted there were providing invaluable intelligence to counter German campaigns.
The new Tunny Gallery, with the Tunny machine itself as the centrepiece, has been impressively decked-out to recreate the look and feel of the codebreaking quarters in Bletchley Park and Dollis Hill in the early 1940s. Unveiling the gallery to the press, the museum’s trustee and director Andy Clarke introduced a vivid re-enactment of the end-to-end process featuring costumed actors and volunteers using the lovingly recreated machines. However, they were soon trumped by the real-deal: a handful of the original staff who worked on and with the machines almost 70 years ago, two of whom gave gripping accounts of their experiences.
Helen Currie, by her own admission something of an ‘unruly girl’, was one of the ATS ladies working shifts around the clock punching 60 characters per minute onto perforated tape ready to be translated by the machines. She told of the “continual reminder of the importance of secrecy” at the time and how she remained quite ignorant of the significance of her and her colleagues’ efforts until books and films praising their work began to be published 30 or more years later.
Inevitably, completing restoration projects such as these becomes something of a race against time: while fragments of design notes and circuit diagrams can be salvaged, the project’s most valuable assets – its original staff and their priceless memories – sadly fade. All the more poignant then that several of the remaining operators and engineers could be present for the grand opening: as Andy Clarke remarked, the new gallery is “a fitting tribute to their achievements.”For more information and visiting times The National Museum of Computing History see www.tnmoc.org