Science - X marks the spot

30th November 2012 at 00:00
Take pupils to the place where the Enigma code was cracked

If you have never taken pupils on an educational trip, the 2012 Turing centennial provides an opportunity and Bletchley Park a location. This was the centre of the Second World War code-breaking effort, in which Alan Turing played a central role. The most famous of the ciphers broken at Bletchley Park (known as Station X) were those generated by the Enigma machine, but other codes used by Germany and its allies were broken there, too.

Large wooden huts were erected on the lawns behind the magnificent mansion in Buckinghamshire. These became home to the famous codebreakers of the war and were one of the birthplaces of modern computing and cryptography.

A team including Turing made the first break in early 1940. By April, they had cracked both the German Army and Luftwaffe ciphers. Enigma was broken with the help of a complex electro-mechanical device, designed by Turing, known as the Bombe. The Bombes were operated by an army of Wrens (members of the Women's Royal Naval Service) in Hut 11. As the code-breaking work increased, the numbers working at Station X swelled to more than 9,000, and by 1944 at least 200 Bombes were in use.

Teachers can take pupils around the grounds of Bletchley Park, identifying the surviving huts and learning more of this fascinating story. Cottage Number 3 was where the first break was achieved, while The Bungalow became a centre for early computer research by mathematicians including Turing, Gordon Welchman, Max Newman and Tommy Flowers.

By 1943 the Nazis had developed Lorenz, a semi-automatic machine even more complex than Enigma. Newman was convinced that the answer to cracking Lorenz ciphers lay in developing a computing machine such as that described by Turing in his pre-war thesis. It was in Block F in late 1943 that Flowers housed Colossus, Bletchley Park's greatest success. So successful was Colossus that a Mark II model was designed and six machines were housed in Block H in 1944. Block H is now home to the National Museum of Computing.

Roger Davies teaches computing across the 11-18 age group and is director of IT at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. He edits the Computing at School termly magazine. Booked school visits to Bletchley Park are welcomed, tailored to different age groups. For details, visit: www.bletchleypark.org.uk.

WHAT ELSE?

Show pupils how antique the first computers seem now with scottlowther's computing timeline - a perfect classroom display. bit.lyComputerHistory

From digital microscopes to exploring the night sky, ICTfromBecta's booklet is packed with ideas on using computers in the science classroom. bit.lyScienceICT.

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