Scaling brilliance

August 13, 2016

Bombe detailIn July I visited Bletchley Park and was impressed, as so many before me, by the bombes (mechanical calculators – not computers) and the brilliance of the code-breakers, Turing among them.  I was also massively impressed by the community of volunteers who have rebuilt demonstration bombes in the absence of drawings or of parts – all were destroyed after the war.

But actually, I was most impressed by the insights of a man called Gordon Welchman.  He did have his moment of cryptoanalytic brilliance in designing the diagonal board – a key part of the system for decoding Enigma messages.

But his greater contribution, in my eyes anyway, was his realization of the need for scale and for joined-up operations.  Linking together the intercept stations, the understanding of the radio networks and what they said about organizational structures, the multiplicity of bombes, their manufacture and operation, the deciphering of messages, and the extraction of insight from the results.  And he got his head around this early enough to have the infrastructure in place before the inevitable explosion in volume and complexity of traffic.  3000 motorcycle dispatch riders per day, plus teleprinters delivering messages.

A system capable of managing this much data, decoding it, indexing it and then disseminating the information was a remarkable achievement that was hidden in plain sight of all involved.

(And I enjoyed his book “The Hut Six Story” in which it is all detailed. However it is a shame that the publishers saw fit to remove, from the 2016 edition, Welchman’s call to action for the future, replacing it with pages of minor bickering about details of history.)


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