- Gateways to Bletchley
Bletchley Park is a former country estate, with a large house in an undistinguished late Victorian style. During its time as the headquarters of UK cryptanalysis efforts in World War II, its grounds began to fill with huts, followed by massive information-processing blocks. In the postwar era, elements of the intelligence services remained until much of it became a telecommunications training school. It is located in the Home Counties of England, equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge, about an hour north of London, now encroached upon by archetypal developer-speculative suburbia, at the edge of the New Town of Milton Keynes. It can be seen as an under-acknowledged cauldron of information-processing experimentation, a cinematic cypher, and a prism through which we can view British senses of wartime, class, transatlantic power, stunted modernity, the military roots of the information age, and relations to ruin and redevelopment (fig. 1).
There are a series of binaries at work in representations of Bletchley:
revelation and coynessdisplay and absencedepth and surface
Different approaches to a site of myth—redevelopment, nostalgia, mystery, and technology—are here explored in a primarily photographic journey. [End Page 151]
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Codebreaking relied on finding a “depth,” a sequence repeated nearly, but not quite identically, across messages, allowing intuition and computing power a space to pry apart the logic of the underlying mechanisms. Different approaches to our experience of the site might function similarly.
There were two main code systems broken at Bletchley: Enigma, which was based on a (relatively) straightforward mechanical system, and Lorenz, a much more complicated proposition. With Enigma, code wheel settings could in theory have been broken by hand, but it would have taken far too long to go through all the possibilities. Alan Turing suggested a means of mechanization of the attack on the codes (the Turing “bombes”).
The Lorenz cipher was considerably tougher; the answer was the world’s first semiprogrammable computer, Colossus, run on thousands of valves for high-speed switching. While Turing’s theoretical insights suggested general approaches to the problem, and indicated desirable qualities and capabilities of a computing machine, the device was, in fact, suggested and designed by a Post Office engineer named Thomas Flowers, influenced by the mathematical intuitions of Bill Tutte. Flowers’s prototype met with skepticism and some resistance from the theorists, but it worked the first time out and broke its first code settings in less than an hour.
Flowers never received due recognition for his work; he had to watch the glory showered on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) system as the world’s first computer and to endure humiliations from his employers, as he could not reveal the true source of his certainty that electronics and not analog servos were the communication tools of the future. As a working-class Londoner, his voice was returned to the lower orders after the war.
The mythology of Bletchley Park is all about the small: small huts, small huddles, a few initiates. The real Bletchley Park grew to a complement of over nine thousand staff. Codebreaking was an industrial, not artisanal, process. Bletchley as dreamtime, as place of public imagination, is paradoxical. Half-known and constantly recirculated legends persist in public discourse alongside factual accounts, interspersed with significant silences and gaps. Enigma stories have more traction than Colossus stories, despite the latter’s greater significance. Vagueness persisted; as late as 1996, writers could still refer to “Turing’s Colossus” (Edwards 1996).
Postwar uses of the site included a Diplomatic Wireless Service transmission station, as well as a telecommunications training school for the General Post Office, which would subsequently become privatized as British Telecom. The site was abandoned in 1992, and the Bletchley Park Trust began operations to work with the remains.
In terms of the remaining structure and its consequences for understanding, the master plan document puts it succinctly: “Whilst a central area of the site has operated as a museum for the past decade, a lack of resources and sale of outlying parts of the...