One of the most effective weapons built during World War II was the Turing Bombe. This bombe was not an explosive device, but an early computer.
The bombe was the key to cracking the German code known as Enigma, which Hitler’s regime believed unbreakable, and in doing so it helped to win the Battle of Britain in 1940 and the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942-43.All the machines were destroyed after the war in order to preserve the secrecy of the program. Half a century later, a team of engineers decided to rebuild a working copy for historians to study. It took them ten years.
Developed by the mathematicians Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, the first bombe was built by the British Tabulating Machine Company in Letchworth, Herts.
The rebuilding project involved making almost everything involved from scratch and the engineers estimated that they had used 10 miles of wire alone in constructing the complex machinery.There is an editorial in the Telegraph which draws some lessons from the story of how Enigma was broken. One of the lessons deals with non-obvious benefits of pure academics.
The bombe worked not as a proto-computer – that was the role played by the later machine Colossus, also developed at Bletchley – but as an electro-mechanical machine that tried out all the possible combinations in which the German encoding machine Enigma could be set.
It did so at a speed which meant that the Bletchley team could read messages from German military and naval commanders, who assumed that Enigma was unbreakable, within nine hours.
The war was certainly shortened - some argue it may even have been won - by men and women pursuing academic disciplines that often had no obvious practical application whatsoever: exactly the kind of people whose institutions, salaries and status have been degraded again and again by successive British governments. I put some of them into Enigma: men like Frank Adcock, dean of King’s College, Cambridge, author of The Greek and Macedonian Art of War, and Dilwyn Knox, who broke the Abwehr Enigma, but whose life’s work was a study of the mimes of Herodas....
One could go on endlessly. Egyptologists, skilled in piecing together the papyri of lost civilisations, suddenly discovered that the same talent could be applied to working out the pattern of German radio traffic. An ability to understand the six-part fugue in Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer was invaluable in seeing the hidden pattern in a line of Kriegsmarine cipher.
The lesson of Bletchley Park is simple: there is no substitute for the discipline of scholarship, and for the pursuit of purely intellectual activities. Politicians who sneer at this as a waste of taxpayers’ money would do well to ponder the story of Enigma. The cryptanalysts whom Churchill addressed in 1941 may indeed have looked as though they had just crawled out from under a stone. They may not have been able to muster an MBA between them, let alone a degree in media studies. And they would certainly not have recognised their educations as part of anyone’s “number one micro-economic policy”. But they won the war.