Computing's Past: Station X and modern encryption

by Martyn Davies on 4th July 2009

One of last month’s highlights for me was visiting Bletchley Park, for one of their geek meetups

In World War II, Bletchley Park (codenamed Station X) was a secret code-breaking site that decoded messages from Enigma and Lorenz cipher machines, hoping to put the most crucial secrets in Churchill’s hands by lunchtime each day.  They pioneered industrial-scale code-breaking, and along the way created some of the earliest digital computers.

'An Enigma Machine at Beltchley' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

'An Enigma Machine at Beltchley' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

Today, Bletchley Park celebrates not only code-breaking, but also has a computing museum that brings together some of the landmarks of computing.  For myself, the Research Machines 380Z and the Commodore PET were two of the first micro-computers (as we used to say) that I saw at school.  The 1970’s ICL mainframe dominates a room, with a set of fridge-sized hard-disks with an 80Mb capacity, which make an interesting counterpoint to the drawful sub-gigabyte flash drives at home that I now consider “obsolete”.

Thanks for the memory

'Thanks for the memory... 80MB of storage' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

Now the phone that you carry in your pocket is far more powerful than just about any CPU that you can point to at Bletchley (other than perhaps the Cray Y-MP), but you can also draw a line from mobiles to Bletchley Park in terms of encryption science:  For example the SIM card uses an embedded encryption key known to your mobile network.  Without this secret key, it would be possible for others to clone your identity and make calls on your account.  Your voice stream (on 3G / GSM networks) is also encrypted to avoid interception, which used to be trivial in the days of analogue mobile networks.

'A Cray Supercomputer' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

'A Cray YM-P Supercomputer... one of the few things in the museum with more processing power than your phone' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

Bletchley Park will be running a monthly ‘geek day’ in the future, so if computing history interests you, make sure to follow @bletchleypark and @stationx on Twitter, or visit the web site.

'Alan Turing: Cryptology Pioneer' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

'Alan Turing: Cryptology Pioneer' by Martyn Davies (all rights reserved).

The BBC Digital Planet team were also at Bletchley Park for the geek day, and you can hear their special programme online here.

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