War is the mother of all invention. Essentially, this not a particularly ambiguous saying – if there’s a very real chance your country could be invaded, the pressure’s on to come up with some punchier tech to help with the war effort. The quote could be changed to ‘being threatened is the quickest way to get stuff done’ – were it not for the poetic deficiency and potential for abuse by employers.
The six years in which World War Two took place in particular represented a remarkable rate of technological advancement, sowing the seeds for even more remarkable development in the decades that followed. While Einstein was battling with the idea that the atomic bomb he did so much to create might cause an atmospheric chain reaction that could crack the globe in half, British code breakers were busy nailing together the Colossus – the machine that is now regarded as the grandfather of the modern PC, and the first step towards the Information Age.
Since Bletchley Park and the machines it housed represent the Big Bang of our industry, Simon Greenish, director of the Bletchley Park Trust, argues we should be paying it more attention: "Bletchley Park is fundamental to the history of the computer. Colossus – the world’s very first semi-programmable electronic computer – was developed here and systematically broke the German High Command Lorenz cipher often before it was even read by Hitler and his generals.
"Due to the veil of secrecy surrounding the technological advances made here during World War Two, this fact was hidden from the world for 30 years after the end of the war and therefore the brilliant and innovative engineers responsible have only very slowly begun to attain the credit they deserve for their achievements. The accomplishments of the unsung intellectual warriors at Bletchley Park heralded the dawn of the Information Age we take so much for granted today."
It’s true. Literally everything in any way classed as ‘techy’ – laptops, security software, flash drives, web-mail, MMOs, CAD design systems and Trojans – was spawned from the Colossus computer and those first early steps in computational hardware. Those tasked with maintaining Bletchley Park would like to see the current custodians of the technology industry take a larger role in investing in and promoting awareness of the historic site.
"It is important for us all to remember where it all started and although there is heightened awareness I do think more could be done in identifying and celebrating Bletchley Park as the birthplace of the modern computer," continues Greenish. "Many of those who worked on the early computers at Bletchley continued their work after WWII and influenced the design of the first commercial computers and even the development of the internet.
"The Bletchley Park Trust was formed in 1992 to ensure that the wartime achievements of these people were celebrated and remembered. The aim of the Trust is now to turn Bletchley Park into a world-class heritage and educational centre to reflect the significance of the technological advances made here and the impact they had on the outcome of World War Two and the twentieth century. "Any assistance given in achieving this aim by modern PC and technology firms would be tremendous.
"We would be delighted to see UK technology firms get involved in driving awareness and upkeep of Bletchley Park. IBM and PGP have demonstrated their support by making a £50,000 donation to The National Museum of Computing which, although a different organisation to the Bletchley Park Trust, is housed here and is all part of our visitor experience. However, there is great scope and opportunity for other firms to develop partnerships with Bletchley Park and we believe there are huge possibilities for some prestigious brand association initiatives." The organisers have managed to rally initial funding to upkeep the property, but are looking to the UK technology channel for further private investment.
"English Heritage has laid down the gauntlet to other funding bodies, organisations and individuals by pledging £100,000 a year over the next three years, on condition that the funding is matched by outside partners," says Greenish. "The total possible investment of £600,000 would be allocated to restoring the key elements and buildings of Bletchley Park which are in crucial state of disrepair. For that match-funding to come from a UK technology firm would be marvellously fitting."
In terms of what those early pioneers such as Alan Turing would make of the current technology landscape, Greenish says: "I think they would be fascinated. The speed of innovation at wartime Bletchley Park was phenomenal and the speed of innovation which has taken the internet from a new technology to something that underpins the very way we do everything today has been equally as fast."
In an industry perpetually looking towards the future, it’s natural to be concerned only with the next big thing, be that a new killer mobile product, ever more cored processors, better armed graphics cards, or the inconceivably high levels of memory required to push us into the truly digital home.
As we continue the march forward – towards possible conclusions such as the realisation of total cloud computing, laptops actually for everyone on the planet, and true Isaac Asimov-style artificial intelligence – it might be worth having a glance behind our shoulder every now and again at the road that led us there.