Saturday, 30 March 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

            I think it is high time that this country put up public statues commemorating and acknowledging the achievements of two of our greatest wartime scientists, Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. Both worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War breaking the Nazi codes.  In fact there were hundreds of people who worked at Bletchley and no project is a single-handed achievement. I would be happy to see a statue in the middle of London to any of the people who worked at Bletchley, including the women who played a vital role and John Tiltman the chief cryptographer, who was in charge of all projects, but of those hundreds, Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers stand out.
       In the later part of WW2, the Nazis shifted from using the Enigma code to using a far more fiendish one. They called it the Lorenz cipher and the Bletchley control nicknamed it Tunny, or the Fish. While the Enigma code machine had only three wheels, the Tunny machine had twelve, and had other random tricks built into it to make decoding so difficult that even a mathematician could hardly calculate all the possible combinations. The code changed with every letter of the same message. In the later part of the war, from 1943 onwards, Tunny was the code that the Germans depended on for their top-most secrets and attack plans. Cracking it meant the difference between success and failure.

      In the public mind there is only one scientist from Bletchley whose contribution is recognized and that is out of all proportion. Alan Turing is increasingly known as the code breaker who won the war and the father of the modern computer, but that belief is the result of schools and the media pushing history with a biassed agenda. To tell the truth Turing's work on Enigma was greatly helped by the lucky capture of an Enigma machine from a German U-boat.  Work on the Enigma code has started long before the war, and crptographers from all over Europe had done the ground work. Turing came from a fortunate background, being sent to public school and Oxford before he was recruited to Bletchley.

     Bill Tutte,  the principal mathematician who undertook the work on the fiendish Tunny, came from a humble background, being the son of a gardener and a cook, and he went to a grammar school. From there he won a scholarship to university where he studied chemistry. He was aged only 24 when he arrived at Bletchley. His feats of deduction and analysis were extraordinary and have been described as a "miracle". Because the sheer quantity of data to be processed was overwhelming, Max Newman suggested that they try to build a calculating machine along the lines suggested by Alan Turing. Turing was one of dozens of scientists who over a period of about a century contributed to the development of the modern computer, and he took no other part in the Tunny project. Turing's first machine did not work very well and the successful machine, "Colossus" was built by Tommy Flowers. He was a Post Office telephone engineer from a working-class background, who used electric circuits and valves. Because all this work was top secret, even after the war ended, neither of them could talk about what they had done or get credit for it. He and Bill Tutte are now belatedly getting some recognition as the "unsung heroes of IT".

         A recent petition on the internet suggested that the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square should be used for a statue of Alan Turing, yet there are already three statues of him. The Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park in Manchester was put there in 2001 at the expense of  the Alan Turing Memorial Fund. This fund was set up by a barrister who had decided Turing deserved a statue after seeing High Whitemore's play Breaking the Code. But that play gives only a very limited notion of what really went on at Bletchley Park. In 2004 a bronze statue of Turing was erected at the University of Surrey in Guildford and in 2007 a third statue, in slate, by Stephen Kettle, was placed in a prominent position at Bletchley Park itself. Surely that is enough?

      Some statues of the really great heroes of the secret war are long overdue and they should not be overlooked just because both of them were heterosexual.

Current exhibition about him at the Science Museum
Turing's machine voted best British  invention of 20th century

E-petition for a statue in the middle of London

1 comment:

  1. A statue in Trafalgar square is nowhere near enough. Move over St George, Turin is the new patron now !