Bletchley Park: Where ‘computers’ helped the Allies win WWII, now hosting the world’s first AI summit
Context- Bletchley Park, Located about 80-odd km north of London, is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern computing. Advances made there in cryptographic and intelligence processes during World War II contributed greatly to the Allied effort, and may have shortened the War by a couple of years.
As world leaders and tech moghuls meet at Bletchley Park to discuss the next frontier in modern computing, a look at the history of the venue where they are meeting.
A central location, safe from German bombers
- When World War II broke out in 1939, like many other British agencies and institutions, Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was promptly moved out of London, under constant threat from German bombers.
- The new location, Bletchley Park, was a Victorian country house located in a sprawling 58-acre estate in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Bletchley was well connected by the rail network, and lay on Britain’s north-south telephone line, making it an ideal choice for the GC&CS.
- Over the course of the War, over 10,000 people worked at Bletchley Park, their efforts devoted to a singular objective: to read intercepted messages from the enemy to provide useful intelligence for the War effort.
Cracking the Enigma code
- Bletchley Park is most known for cracking the ‘unbreakable’ Enigma code. Enigma machines were cipher machines used by the Nazis to encrypt their radio messages.
- They featured a set of rotors, as well as a plugboard, which helped create over a 150 quintillion combinations. Since settings were typically changed every 24 hours, manually breaking the code was near impossible.
- This is where the Turing Bombe entered the picture. An electro-mechanical device that replicated the action of Enigma machines, British mathematician Alan Turing’s device significantly expedited the process to identify the code. At the peak of the War, hundreds of Turing Bombes would be simultaneously operated, mostly by women in dingy rooms.
- By breaking the code more quickly, the invention allowed analysts to decipher German messages in time for the Allies to act on said intelligence.
Ushering in the age of computers
- Another machine built at Bletchley Park was the Colossus, to help in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, used specifically by the German High Command. Designed by Tommy Flowers under Max Newman, a total of 10 Colossi were built at Bletchley Park from 1943-45.
- Many regard the Colossus as the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer, although it was programmed by switches and plugs, rather than a stored program. Unfortunately, after the War, all the machines were destroyed and the people who worked on it were sworn to secrecy. Consequently, for the longest time, it was not recognised as the world’s first computer.
A lasting legacy
- There is the technological legacy that Bletchley Park left, the primary reason why it was chosen to host this year’s AI Summit. Principles developed by Turing and his colleagues continue to inform modern computing, artificial intelligence.
Working in the dark
- An oft-ignored part of Bletchley Park’s history is the role women played in functioning. “By the height of the agency’s wartime activity, in the winter of 1944, it had recruited over 9000 staff members, more than 70% of whom were female,” Christopher Smith wrote in The Hidden History of Bletchley Park (2015).
Syllabus- Prelims; Current Affairs
Source- Indian Express