2016 Spring Meeting – Bletchley Park and Stowe House

Posted by Ruth Alderson on November 4th, 2016

Can you keep a secret? Adhering to the Official Secrets Act was a paramount ability, along with others such as mathematics, linguistics, musicality, military knowledge, a love of puzzle-solving (chess and crosswords), for the people recruited to work at Bletchley Park during WW11.

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Our Spring Meeting focused on ‘Britain’s Best Kept Secret’ and the role of Bletchley at the start of modern code-breaking. Some 41 members enjoyed the self-guided multimedia tours of exhibition galleries which, combined with guided group tours of the buildings, gave us an insight into the work and life at Bletchley. The key task was to develop a system for de-coding Germany’s “Enigma” cipher machine.

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ENIGMA

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BOMBE

It was achieved by Alan Turing’s invention of an electromechanical device, refined by Gordon Welchman, built by Harold Keen and known as the “bombe”.  We saw a reconstructed model demonstrated. The more sophisticated German “Lorenz” cipher machine was also decrypted – culminating in “Colossus”, effectively the world’s first programmable computer.

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LORENZ

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COLOSSUS

This fascinating morning was followed in the afternoon by many members visiting the separate but adjacent National Museum of Computing where “Colossus” is exhibited. The Museum traces the story of computing from the 1960’s and also features the 1951 Harwell Dekatron Computer – the world’s oldest working computer.

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After an evening meal together at Winslow’s historic “The Bell Inn”, the group met again for Sunday’s visit to Stowe House, a Grade 1 listed country house. It formerly belonged to the Temple-Grenville family who, in the late 17th and 18th century, spent much of their vast wealth on the house, especially the lavish “State Rooms” and the grounds, landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Later the family’s fortunes turned and the house was abandoned, its contents sold. It was saved from demolition and became a private school in 1922. Since 1997 the house has been owned by the Stowe House Preservation Trust whose aim is to restore the building.

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Stowe House’s link to the Alderson family is through Raymond Pasteur (Nik) Alderson who attended the school in 1932. He died in Libya in 1942 whilst serving with an ambulance unit of the Free French Army.

Thanks to Godfrey and Vivienne for setting up yet another excellent Spring Meeting, much enjoyed by those attending.