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Another Enigma discovery

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20 years ago this week, the first step (of many) in saving #bpark

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Bletchley Park Bombe Enigma Uncategorized

First Demonstration Day on the Bombe #bpark

Sunday was my first day on the bombe with visitors. I’ve previously blogged on the first day of training , but this was to be different. Still learning, but this time in public 🙂

The day kicked off with a necessarily early (for Sunday!) alarm, and then off in the car. The first major event of the day was the sudden appearance of a 2’6” horizontal crack in my windscreen. One moment it wasn’t there, the next it was. Great!
The next thing to strike me was the realisation that although the SatNav said BP was 60 miles away, and my car said it had 72 miles in the tank, the actual route is 73 miles. Not wishing to tempt fate, I did a quick splash and dash on the way.

Despite the fuel thing, I arrived on time, and collected my shiny new Bletchley Park Volunteer pass at the security gate, along with parking permit, and drove up to the old tennis court car park. I was car number 2 – a good sign. John H was already there, and we delighted in the warmth of the Mansion for the team brief instead of the freezing room that would have been in Hut 4.

Bryan took the meeting, although there was not too much to talk about, and then John introduced what the Bombe project is now up to with the other site volunteers and explained that today we would be trying a few demonstrations to visitors. It was decided we’d piggy back Frank Carter’s Enigma presentation at 11:30 with a Bombe run.

So we headed off to Block B and with Jean and John G, started to load up the Bombe. If you’ve been to BP or researched the Bombe you’ll know that there are three banks of 36 drums along the front of the machine. The highest bank is a little too high for the vertically challenged, so we decided to make life easier for ourselves by moving the dummies on the middle bank up to the top, and then load the real drums onto the middle bank. We followed procedure properly and inspected every drum for any loose or bent wires that might cause a short and invalidate the testing.  However we\’ve not been issued with regulation eyebrow tweezers yet 🙂

The last check is to make sure the drums are all properly set to the right values from the ‘Menu’.  In this instance ZZ on the top and middle row, and then various letters on the lower. We then switch the machine on. Clickety-clack it went (as one person tweeted on Sunday). We ran the machine through to make sure we had no slippage on the drums, and then ran a full test of the menu, and got the 4 stops we were expecting, along with 2 we weren’t, hmmm. Maybe try that again later, for by now, Frank had turned up along with a crowd of expectant visitors and he opened up the Enigma machine for his demo.

Frank covered the demo well, and I think the young lad who got to help was rather chuffed, and then, after a few questions it was over to the Bombe. Everyone turned around 180° and John H gave an overview of things, and then finally we switched on. I kept very much to the background as there was far more knowledge around me, but I did speak to a few people and helped answer a few questions. After this was over and the visitors had meandered off I was challenged by a colleague
“have you spoken to many people”
“a bit, but I don’t really like talking to strangers!”
“that’s no excuse – you should always talk to them”
You see, the thing is, I do find it a bit odd talking to strangers in a contrived manner. I’ll happily talk to people I don’t know at a gig or IT trade show; but in the context of the Bombe demonstrations I found it a bit intimidating offering myself up for interrogation. It\’s sort of because I know how much I don\’t know – when I should really be thinking of how much more I know that the average visitor.  Silly I know, but…

So now it was time for lunch, we staggered lunch breaks so that we could keep an eye on the fully loaded Bombe, and reconvened about 1:30. By this time a few people had come by and asked if we could do another demonstration, so we decided to kick off and get the machine going.

This time I got more involved and approached visitors and asked them if there was anything they wanted to know. They did, and I was able to help them. The key interest seemed to be in the complexity of the problem being solved. At one point someone asked me about something they’d read elsewhere in the display, and I realised I didn’t know what they were talking about, so (having admitted I was new to things!) I asked to be pointed to the article, realised what they meant and then learned something for myself (but also got the answer and told them).  So it wasn\’t tooooo difficult.

The crowds disappeared again, and we decided that the trainees should try to plug up a menu from first principles. I decided for myself it would be interesting to try to take the “standard” menu layout without the ancillary information and see if I could plug it up correctly. What I wanted to achieve (but failed!) was to see if it was possible to do it without ‘prior knowledge’ of the correct menu plugging. The issue is that I have been told that the WRENS who operated the machine did so independently at the front (drum settings) and back (menu plugging). So I wanted to approach the problem from a position of ignorance (easy enough!) and then go through it. I managed to get most of the way round the menu, but then things fell apart. More for the next time I think.

For the rest of the afternoon visitors came by every now and then, and where I could I would answer questions that came up, or point them at BP’s reports (numbers 4 and 9 are very good!)

Finally the day over, I went home. Tired, but pleased with the way things went, and looking forward to the next time.


Updated: Changed the blog title to avoid confusion with an earlier blog

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Bletchley Park Bombe Enigma Uncategorized

My first day on the bombe…

Last week was my introduction to the Bombe in Bletchley Park. I had volunteered last year to be a demonstrator and I was going there to find out more, and also for John H who ran the rebuild project to check me out and gain confidence that I might be up to it – a mutual interview as it were.

My first challenge was to get there, having woken early I looked out on a whiteout, snow had reached East Anglia again, and there were a good few inches of snow on the ground, and it was settling well. I live in a very rural area, and there would be no gritted roads for some distance. Driving a powerful rear wheel drive car would also add some extra fun into the equation :-). At least I had fully de-iced the car the day before so that I could get away fairly quickly!

In the end I convinced myself that the weather would not deteriorate and set off early into the falling snow. The next hour saw me travel all of 2 miles as all traffic seemed to have come to a halt in our area, so I went ‘off-piste’ as it were and got to the gritted main roads and then got to BP only about ½ hour later than expected.

I met up with John H, Mike and Paul – 3 stalwarts of the Bombe project. First up was coffee (very welcome!), and then we covered H&S issues – the conversation went along the lines of
“been electrocuted?”
“yup (shows scar on thumb), full mains for 5-10 seconds right hand to left and left with back injury (spondylolisthesis if you are interested) to prove it. Oh and I’m sufficiently risk averse to have this in my pocket (holds up snow/ice scraper for car)”
“so you’ll be sensible around 200V DC then… …now this is the instruction sheet for starting the Bombe, let’s start”
OK, so I abbreviated, paraphrased, and been a bit facetious.
But H&S is taken seriously on the project in the practical environment so we don’t need a nanny state approach to things!!

So then it was time to run the Bombe. The Bombe rebuild project was more an engineering project than anything else so as a computer graduate and geek, rather than an engineer I come to the project with a different focus.

The conversation we had around just 1 A4 sheet of detailed instructions is lengthy as the geek in me comes out and pursues different angles and more than 1 cul-de-sac; but we get through it all and I finally push the last button and it’s running!!! The 13 year old in me was completely satisfied and delighted, and grinning away, although I try to convey a quiet satisfaction externally. We stop the machine, and I discover my placement of the wheels was not precise enough and we have had “slippage”. We fixed that by throwing the special switch which speeds the Bombe back to ZZZ and then stops. I reposition the wheels and things then work fine.

At about this point some visitors came through and were asked (not my me!) if they wanted to see it running – carefully following my instructions again I did my first live (as it were) demonstration. It worked as it should, and this time did not slip – hurrah!

We switched off and then I throw the instructions into reverse and shutdown and dis-assemble my part of the Bombe.

Well that went well!!


So we went off to see Kelsey Griffin and thence to lunch in Hut 4.

On returning to the Bombe, we spent some time looking at the demonstration ‘cut down’ Bombe which is being built so that visitors can see a much smaller machine running on demand (and without the need for a demonstrator) in the same way as the real thing. This will be a great addition to the exhibition as the noise and movement makes the Bombe so tangible rather than a boring static box of tricks. There are a number of engineering issues, and I could not add much to what was going on, but I did enjoy the discussion about whether to move a component (or not) that ended with the question “Do you like hospital food?”. The component stayed where it was 🙂

To get back on track with education I then went into the booth to view the splendid 3D presentation on the Enigma machine and the decryption work at BP. If you go, don’t miss it.

The final part to the day’s training was to spend some more time with John going through ‘menus’. During the war the cryptographers came up with cribs which offered clues to settings of the Enigmas in use with a particular code, and this resulted in a diagram of letters with connections between them. These are commonly shown in books, but I have always found some difficulty in understanding what went on (getting to them from the crib seems easier somehow).

John then very patiently went through a sample menu, and I then realised that the books and documentation I had read to date simply did not explain how much intellectual effort the Wrens who ran the Bombes went through to turn the menu into a practical wiring assembly. There’s a really complex set of decisions and wiring layouts to plan so that the menu can be turned into a Bombe run and thus reveal potential settings for the Enigma used for the original transmission. With each Bombe run taking a maximum of 12-13 minutes, there was not much time to plan the next run if it was not already prepared.

I’d like to think that sometime in the future I’ll fully understand all this, and be able to put it all together into something more publishable for the team.

Additionally the computer/maths graduate in me think there’s probably an algorithm in the process to be developed so that turning a menu into practical wiring would be semi or even fully automatic! Maybe 2012 🙂

With that we were done, and after a brief chat with Kelsey again, I hit the road and finally made it home. As I said on twitter on the day, that’s the highest bandwidth learning I’ve done since University days!

Links:

Bombe rebuild project – more information Bletchley Park is well worth a visit if you are anywhere near Milton Keynes, and for the techies amongst you it also houses
The National Museum Of Computing where both the Colossus rebuild (the world’s first computer), and Witch (the world’s oldest complete computer).

If you want to get involved with the Bombe project then contact Kelsey on twitter, or via the webpages mentioned above






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#bpark – if you are in IT

If you are in IT, then you are in a privileged position. Our industry is new, and whilst some theoretical and some practical work (Babbage comes to mind) was done a long time ago, it is fair to say that the wartime work at Bletchley Park is the birthplace of this industry.

So we are doubly blessed that
a) Bletchley Park still exists, and is a museum containing both the Colossus and Bombe rebuilds which in my view were the ‘birth events/objects’ for IT.
b) Bletchley Park also contains The National Museum Of Computing


How many industries out there can point to their birthplace, see the original items (or at least reconstructions of them), and have a sizeable museum to them there as well to boot?  I guess the bridge at Ironbridge probably comes close, but I think this makes Bletchley park unique.

So, maybe when the snow clears, make a New Year’s resolution to go there, and see it, and help it to survive – it needs a lot of money to preserve that legacy.

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Bletchley Park Christmas 2009 Enigma Uncategorized

#BPark – complete a Christmas Carol

The Holly and the Ultra
When they are both full grown
Of all the codes that are in the war
The Ultra wears the crown
Oh the rising of the WRENs
And the running of the Bombes
The playing of the Herivelismus
Sweet decryption with the cillies

Alright, but can you do better – please do so via the comments!

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Bletchley Park Enigma Uncategorized

The text for the Enigma not at #bpark

Twitpic downscaled this. In case blogspot does…

\”Enigma coding and deciphering machine
With the Enigma texts could be encrypted by means of several interchageable rotors and additional plug settings. The extreemely high number of potentials coodes meant Wehrmacht messages almost impossible to decipher at first\”

There\’s quite a bit to modify/correct here, but #bpark can probably do it better than me.

I\’d have liked to see a reference to Bletchley Park with it…

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Bletchley Park Enigma Uncategorized

I think Alan Turing and #bpark might have a view on this…

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Bletchley Park Enigma Uncategorized

Blimey! #bpark #tnmoc

8 bit East German computer, one of only 21,000 made in the 80\’s.

Twin floppy and everything!

Wonder if there\’s one at The National Museumn Of Computing in Bletchley Park?

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Bletchley Park Enigma Uncategorized

And in the German Hostory Musem… #bpark