The Imitation Game — It’s the bomb!

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Really!  Great movie, but also the “bombe” was the name of the machine designed primarily by Alan Turing (aka Benedict Cumberbatch in the film, The Imitation Game) to help break the Nazi’s Enigma code.  It was crucial because breaking Enigma saved millions of lives — maybe including ours because some of us might not be here today if it weren’t for the work done by code breakers like Turing at Bletchley Park, England.

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Station X, or Bletchley Park, the British code breaking site, was called “the hush hush place” by locals.  Nobody in the tiny town of Bletchley knew exactly what was going on there although they likely didn’t believe the stories of an upper class hunting club or the “cheese and chess society” despite the fact that Bletchley Park was a beautiful estate.  To their credit, they kept it to themselves.  It’s hard to imagine that kind of silence in today’s social media age, but maybe if you were in fear of imminent invasion–in fact your country’s outer islands were already occupied–you might be inspired.  The workers took pains to keep the secret, too, some of them getting off the train at nearby Milton Keynes and walking to the site so as not to raise eyebrows at crowds pouring off the train in little Bletchley.  Even those who worked at Bletchley Park had little idea of what was going on in the next hut. And they couldn’t talk about what they were doing to anyone.  They were dedicated code breakers these men and women, more women, actually since the men were in battle.

 

One group was breaking the Nazi code  in a building that previously was the apple and pear stand.  Led by the quirky but brilliant Alan Turing, they eventually succeeded, yet had to keep that fact secret so that the Nazis would not abandon that code method and come up with a new one.  Their actions opened shipping channels in the Atlantic and helped with the D-Day invasion and many other battles, probably shortening the war by two years.

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(Photo of Turing’s office, showing how he chained his mug to the radiator so no one would take it.)

A sad — no, horrifying — part of the story is what happened after the war, to Turing.  For the “crime” of homosexuality he was given a sentence of either imprisonment or chemical castration (basically, taking estrogen to supposedly curb his desires).  He was vilified, his reputation attacked, was likely under surveillance, and died an early death, deemed a suicide, at 41.  A very sad end indeed for someone who probably saved our lives.  He was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth last year. (!)

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I visited Bletchley and if you can get there, go.  It really feels like you’re traveling back in time — even the exhibits are endearingly presented with typed index cards in keeping with the times.  If you see the film, you’ll recognize the places and feel like you’re following in the footsteps of The Imitation Game crowd.  Here are some striking takeaways:

–using what we would consider rather primitive tools and methods (including carrier pigeons) they managed to win the war

–self discipline (work ethic, absolute secrecy, even surviving on very limited rations of food) was inspiring

–we are now appropriately embarrassed at the treatment of Alan Turing (judging by the tenor of the exhibits)

–in times of crises we can manage to put aside the things that don’t matter (like sexual preference or sexual stereotypes)

 

 

More info, if you’re interested:

The Seven Highly Productive Habits of Alan Turing

An explanation of The Imitation Game

Bletchley Park (including an exhibit on the movie)

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