Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day revisited

Had I but known! On the very day of the Ada Lovelace blogfest, the women who cracked the German Enigma code had their reunion! Here is an article in the Boston Globe from March 25, by Gregory Katz, about the ladies. When you read about the code breakers, they never stress that the group is mostly (all?) female. These women worked in secrecy and kept their secret until the 1970's. In fact, according to the article, they did not entirely realize what they were decoding, since each of them worked on a tiny piece.

The reunion, in Bletchley Park, returned the surviving code crackers to the scene of their World War II labors. The original machine, a Turing bombe was destroyed to preserve secrecy after the war. The machine in the photograph is a rebuilt replica. Interested readers, who really go for the history of technology might like to read more here, a BBC online article about the development first, of the bombe shown in the photograph, then replaced with teletype style machines that used paper tape, and finally with Colossus, an entirely electro-magnetic machine that used valves instead of paper tape or the mechanical switches of the Turing bombe. The Colossus I and II were fast and faster, working to solve the Enigma codes fast enough to be useful. They also threw off enough heat that the Women’s Royal Naval Service operators were reduced to working in their underwear!

The code breakers who worked here in anonymity helped alter history, frustrating Adolf Hitler's ambitions by giving Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wartime Cabinet crucial advance knowledge of Germany's invasion plans, defenses, and U-boat movements.

Age has not dimmed the code breakers' fierce pride.

They don't boast - the British don't do that - but they know they saved lives.

"Do you know what Churchill called us?" said Jean Valentine, 84, her blue eyes flashing. "He called us 'the geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled.' " (snip)

The real heroes were the hundreds of mathematicians, cryptographers, crossword puzzle aficionados, chess masters and other specialists who spent their days and nights operating the machines at Bletchley Park, about 40 miles northwest of London. (snip)

Retired Brigadier Patrick Erskine-Tulloch endorsed the widely held view that the success of the Bletchley Park code breakers saved an untold number of lives by hastening the Allied victory.

"The great thing is that the Germans never realized we'd broken their code," he said. "Otherwise they would have done something about it. They thought it was unbreakable."
(from the Globe article) More women heroes in the world of technology!

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

After I put this post up, I received the following e-mail announcement:

Bletchley Park Women of Distinction.

Women who served as World War Two code breakers at Bletchley Park have been honoured through a first day cover for a set of “Women of Distinction” stamps.

Artist Jayne Abbot was commissioned to produce six portraits from wartime photographs of women who served at Bletchley Park between 1939 and 1945. They represent the many thousands who worked there in complete secrecy to crack enemy codes. The portraits then formed part of Jayne’s unique envelope design to which Royal Mail’s “Women of Distinction” stamps were added and cancelled using a special Bletchley Park postmark. Only 500 of these little pieces of art and history were issued.

Terry Mitchell of Bletchley Park Post Office said, “The last time we did this the complete issue sold in days raising much needed funds. If anybody ever decided to let one go it will probably fetch a hundred pounds plus now. Jayne’s superb artwork has made this one even more collectable”.
Once again the tiny post office that was once an undercover mailroom is doing its bit to help preserve both the fabric and history of Bletchley Park. The covers and other celebrating the work of Bletchley Park can be seen at