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El Reg drops in on Bletchley Park

Tin-rattling continues at Station X

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The campaign to raise funds to preserve Bletchley Park’s heritage got into full swing yesterday with a cash injection from tech giants PGP Corporation and IBM. But the site, which also houses the National Museum of Computing, needs millions of pounds more to keep it alive.

El Reg went along to the historic World War II site where the German Enigma cipher was broken by early decryption machines, to see how run-down Bletchley Park has become, and to learn more about efforts to save it from falling into decay.

PGP and IBM stumped up a combined total of $100,000 (£56,000) for the site, also known as Station X. But that’s a figure which, while generous, falls far short of what's needed. Yesterday’s donations centred on raising £7m for the National Museum of Computing’s collection of iconic and pioneering computers.

Bletchley Park director Simon Greenish said the site was the “birthplace of computers”. He also outlined the importance played by the Colossus machines that “helped the war effort to a very significant level,” by serving a crucial role in cracking the German’s Enigma code.

Around 40 volunteers help to staff the site, which receives no public funding. Instead, it relies on the generosity of donors to keep it up and running, which probably explains its current dire financial straits.

Despite that, Greenish insisted that Bletchley Park “is just about balancing the books”. Visitor numbers, each paying between £6 and £10 per ticket, are up 30 per cent compared to 2007. However, the National Museum of Computing, which operates as a stand-alone trust within Station X, needs extra money: “If we had a few more pennies we could do a little more,” he said.

Games

Games of yesteryear

Cue PGP’s chief exec Phil Dunkelberger explaining why the data encryption software vendor has swooped in with a chunk of cash.

He said the world needed to hear the “clarion call” and come to the rescue of Bletchley Park. “It’s a call of a debt that is owed by anyone working in the IT industry today.”

“It’s the first stop on the way to Silicon Valley for seminal ideas … from San Jose to outside of London, the linkage is real,” said Dunkelberger.

Unsurprisingly, that was a view shared by many who gathered at Bletchley Park to collectively rattle the tin and big up the importance of the site to future generations.

But as of today it's certainly looking shabby around the edges. The poor condition of huts that served as key buildings for code breakers during WWII perhaps most sharply highlights the ageing site's decay.

Boarded windows

Boarded-up hut at Station X

That's a crying shame, according to Greenish, who explained the deteriorated state of some of the structures, especially huts three and six. All the huts were originally built to have only a limited lifespan, but subsequently became listed buildings because of the crucial role they played in the war effort. "If they get lost it’s a loss to history, and that’s something that we need to prevent happening," he said.

It’s perhaps somewhat fitting to see dusty old tech kit from the past 60 or so years scattered in rooms around the site. But to reach the museum you have to scuttle across a car park to a tatty-looking building where the gear, ranging from a working Air Traffic Control station to a rebuilt and fully operational Colossus, is on display.

The National Computing Museum’s Tony Sale was also on hand yesterday to provide a colourful account of the Lorenz, a high security teleprinter cipher machine created for the German army High Command in WWII to communicate by radio in complete secrecy.

Tony Sale

Tony Sale explains the 'German mistake' that allowed boffins to crack the Lorenz code

But the costly upkeep of Bletchley Park, which is viewed by many as one of the most important sites of the twentieth century, remains an ongoing struggle.

"We're looking for money to deal with all of the other aspects of the site which is the restoration of the huts, development of the museum and preservation of the infrastructure," said Greenish. "But the money is not there yet."

If you want to do your bit to help save Bletchley Park then you can make online donations here, and the public can also offer its support by actually visiting the historic site. ®

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