In late September I visited the UK on route to Cardiff to work for the International Baccalaureate, which I have done nearly ever year for the past 12. This time I decided to visit Blechley Park and for a bit of fun, look for some of the locations used in long running TV series Midsomer murders.
I booked into the Highwayman a country pub near Kidlington, it is a working persons pup, right by a canal and served a variety of real Ales – the ones that pour by pumping. They also served wonderful ‘Full English’ and India food.
On Saturday I went to Bletchley park, the home of the WWII code breakers and Alan Turing, and the National Museum of computing. Alan Turing is simply one of the most brilliant of mathematicians and conceptual thinker about the notion of computational thinking that lead to the development of not only Enigma code breaking machines but also the modern general computer and the stored program concept. In WWII he was one of the lead scientists who worked to crack the German codes created using a mechanical machine called the Enigma code.
His work went unheralded after the war and he eventually committed suicide when charged with homosexual behaviour in around 1950, illegal in Britain at the time. Not until the late 1950’s did his mother know what he did in the war and that he was a hero, his treatment remains a scandal despite Brown’s letter of apology. A movement is underway to grant a full pardon.
Turing’s writings are wonderful in their clarity of not only the technical mathematical content but for his use of every day language to outline the problems he foresaw that would need a technological solution – one being the idea of data storage being like a book with a direct page reference in preference to storing a series of 1’s and 0’s in a mercury filled tube using waves, this latter technology actually worked, but it was his insight of the need for very large storage beyond that of the immediate primary memory that is impressive. He worked with the American von Nuemann to design and discuss developments in computing during WWII, sub-sequentially the von Nuemann design was adopted and basically all computer still use his fundamental design. It uses the philosophy of doing as many instructions as possible using hardware, a complex instruction set. Turing had proposed an alternative to do only the very basic instructions in hardware and to provide the rest using software, this is what is known today as reduced instruction set architecture and is used commonly in mobile devices.
The role of women at Bletchly park was not known during the war and received scant attention after it. The main British code breaking machine, designed by Turing, was called the Bombe, which is a derivation of a Polish word bomba, meaning cytology or code breaking. The machine was used to determine the Enigma machines daily settings and was operated and managed entirely by WREN’s, many of their stories are now available and apparently the shifts were long, stressful as mistakes were costly, very hot, very smelly (oil as it was a machine with moving parts) and very loud. The fundamental inputs were a series of cables connecting single input points two at a time, these connections had to be made very quickly and without mistake: I can attest that this is difficult as you can visit the hut and try for yourself.
I also visited the National Computing Museum and was reacquainted with similar input devices I used as a student in the early 1970 – enter programs a line at a time, the symbols displaying in electrical displays which were small glass cylinders – one per character, about 10 at a time! There were also the old 300MB, 19 platter disk units which I used to sell for $50,000….bit of a trip down memory lane.
The rest of the trip saw me hunting for Midsomer Murder sites – I visited pubs, took pictures of villages, walked in the woods, made a short movie and saw the windmill, alas the camera obscura on the village green of the village of The Lee is fictional, image my disappointment!
Some pics at
I also made a quick visit to Kings College Cambridge – just to say I had been there!
and you can listen to the choir of Kings College here.