Politics

‘Geniuses at War’ Tells How Turing and the World-War-II Code-Breakers Created the Digital World

If you lived in Britain at the height of the war against Germany, squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers circling the sky were part of the terror of day-to-day life. Britain suffered enormously—and stoically. During the Blitz, which lasted from September 1940 until May 1941, and then returned again in 1944, London alone was hit by 71 major attacks. This is the background to David A. Price’s Geniuses at War, a methodical account of the secret British code-breakers working to decode Adolf Hitler’s wartime communications and figure out when the Luftwaffe would strike. Price recounts that over the course of the war in Britain, 52,000 people were killed by bombing raids and another 8,500 by V-1s and V-2s, winged rockets that inaugurated the age of ballistic missiles. “What you didn’t want to hear was the engine becoming silent, a signal that the machine was about to dive and detonate its 1,870-pound payload,” Price writes.


Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A. Price, Knopf, 256 pp., , June 2021

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A. Price, Knopf, 256 pp., , June 2021

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A. Price, Knopf, 256 pp., $28, June 2021

This shows how central the code-breakers—an elite team of mathematicians, linguists, classicists, and intelligence officers—were to saving Britain during World War II. Equally, they were pioneers of modern engineering, inventing computers and other visionary technologies that would be used in the years to come. In a sense, these talented young men and women were the harbingers of today’s tech nerds holed up in Silicon Valley working long nights for Google. There is one big exception: The code-breakers weren’t working to optimize advertising algorithms to sell us useless widgets, but to save thousands of lives from death in the collapsing, burning rubble. They were desperately trying to help end the war—knowing that their work literally decided over life and death every single day.

If you lived in Britain at the height of the war against Germany, squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers circling the sky were part of the terror of day-to-day life. Britain suffered enormously—and stoically. During the Blitz, which lasted from September 1940 until May 1941, and then returned again in 1944, London alone was hit by 71 major attacks. This is the background to David A. Price’s Geniuses at War, a methodical account of the secret British code-breakers working to decode Adolf Hitler’s wartime communications and figure out when the Luftwaffe would strike. Price recounts that over the course of the war in Britain, 52,000 people were killed by bombing raids and another 8,500 by V-1s and V-2s, winged rockets that inaugurated the age of ballistic missiles. “What you didn’t want to hear was the engine becoming silent, a signal that the machine was about to dive and detonate its 1,870-pound payload,” Price writes.


Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A. Price, Knopf, 256 pp., , June 2021

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A. Price, Knopf, 256 pp., $28, June 2021

This shows how central the code-breakers—an elite team of mathematicians, linguists, classicists, and intelligence officers—were to saving Britain during World War II. Equally, they were pioneers of modern engineering, inventing computers and other visionary technologies that would be used in the years to come. In a sense, these talented young men and women were the harbingers of today’s tech nerds holed up in Silicon Valley working long nights for Google. There is one big exception: The code-breakers weren’t working to optimize advertising algorithms to sell us useless widgets, but to save thousands of lives from death in the collapsing, burning rubble. They were desperately trying to help end the war—knowing that their work literally decided over life and death every single day.

As far back as 1940, the code-breakers housed in Bletchley Park, a gracious English country manor in Buckinghamshire, were hacking into Japan’s most secure diplomatic codes. As Hitler’s armies marched across Europe and conquered ever more territory, the pressure became fiercer: Through their spies, the British were well aware that German forces were amassing across the English Channel to prepare for an invasion. Price opens with an account of the recruitment process for the “geniuses” of the book’s title: exceptional young men and women largely recruited from Britain’s elite universities. At the center of the group was Alan Turing—the logician, philosopher, and mathematician educated at Cambridge and Princeton universities who would finally succeed in breaking the Enigma, a cipher device

Turing had a strange, excitable brilliance that some found hard to take, but his vision and genius not only helped the Allies win the war but also led to the dawn of modern computers. A gay man at a time when homosexuality was considered a crime in Britain, Turing would see his life turn into tragedy after the war, when he chose chemical castration to avoid imprisonment and was scorned, rejected, and publicly humiliated for being gay. Despite his tremendous services to his country and the world, he died an early death in 1954 and remained branded as a criminal because of his sexual orientation. The British government did not apologize for the heinous treatment of its genial war hero until 2009, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Queen Elizabeth II finally granted him a posthumous royal pardon. In fact, it was only in 2013 that Britain fully decriminalized homosexuality.

There are other colorful characters in Geniuses at War, including the mathematician Max Newman, who had a Jewish German father, the British Canadian mathematician William Tutte, and the Burma-born classics scholar Donald Michie. Price is best when he delves into the personal histories that led these characters to Bletchley Park and their motivation for lending a hand at a momentous moment in history. They worked nonstop, slept little or on the job, ate terrible wartime food, and proceeded with a feverish energy to achieve the impossible: halt Hitler’s war.

One of the more fascinating characters is Tommy Flowers, an engineer of humble background with a thick working-class accent. “He sounded more like someone from the Covent Garden fruit market than a lecture theater,” Price writes. “I think the Oxbridge set did look down on him.” Flowers had previously worked at the British Post Office. At Bletchley Park, he created Colossus, a primitive but effective electronic computer built with vacuum tubes.

The book is the weakest when it wanders into the arcane details of computer engineering for pages on end. While the code-breakers’ technical achievements are worth telling, Price’s prose sometimes grows obtuse and doesn’t do the narrative justice. A layperson—such as myself—gets lost in the mathematical formulas and highly technical descriptions that stand out against the otherwise gripping historical narrative and personal stories.

But in between the calculus and algebra, Price gives us a narrative worthy of James Bond (whose creator, Ian Fleming, worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division coming up with plots to lure German U-boats to their destruction). There is a grand buildup of tension and the race against time to get the code cracked. And there is the team’s pride when then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill visits Bletchley, finds Turing sitting on the floor surrounded by papers, and realizes how brilliant the team is.

But the book also conveys a deep frustration: The code-breakers weren’t given the resources they needed and were badly managed by men who probably shouldn’t have been running the operation—academics aren’t necessarily the best leaders. Nonetheless, the code-breakers prevailed. By 1943, when the first U.S. cryptographers from the U.S. Army’s Signal Security Agency in Arlington, Virginia, joined the operation, the threat of a German invasion of the British mainland had receded. At that point, the code-breakers were deciphering more than 2,500 secret German messages a day—around 2.5 million total during the course of the war.

After V-E Day, the code-breakers joined the joyous street celebrations. To preserve the project’s secrecy, the British government ordered the files to be burned, Colossus to be eradicated, and some of the huts at Bletchley Park to be dismantled. Disassembled parts were sent to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Eastcote, England.

“I took the information on paper … and put them in the boiler fire and that was that,” Flowers would later say. The machines that had saved the war were broken up, leaving deep impressions in the floor where they used to stand. It was almost as though the secretive team that was so central to the war effort had never even existed. Later, some, like Flowers, would muse on how important the war had been to them: “It was a great time in my life,” Flowers later said. “It spoilt me for when I came back to mundane things with ordinary people.” Bletchley Park’s gates were closed and locked, the key handed over to GCHQ.

Like all good spies, the men and women of Bletchley Park kept their secret, and the work they did was heavily guarded after it was done. Some were later recognized for their genius, but most were not. Edward Travis, in charge of Bletchley Park from 1942 until operations were wound down in 1946, was knighted. His predecessor, Alastair Denniston, who had recruited the dream team, was not—and died without an obituary in the London papers. Newman joined the University of Manchester to teach mathematics.

The saddest case was that of Turing, who was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1946 but kept the medal in a drawer and saw it as a joke. He went on to work in the early precursor to artificial intelligence. In 1952, he was arrested and charged with “gross indecency” in his own home with a 19-year-old man. He was given 12 months’ probation but, horrifically, was forced by the British state to undergo painful and humiliating hormone treatments to curb his libido. He was found dead by his own hand in 1954. Later, his friend and colleague Newman would write that Turing’s time at Bletchley Park was “perhaps the happiest of his life.”

Turing’s story is tragic, but his legacy is enduring. Price concludes that the nascent computers developed in Britain in the 1950s were all direct descendants of Colossus and the work of the code-breakers. All the computer engineers who followed, Price rightly concludes, were “Turing’s intellectual heirs.”

One just wishes Turing and the entire Bletchley Park team could have lived to recognize just how much their work has shaped the world we live in today. And to know they are no longer relegated to be forgotten—or worse, despised.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

close