Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Imitation Game: Back to Bletchley Park

The film The Imitation Game (IG) has reached the cinemas and film festvals in some countries. Elsewhere many newspapers have already carried reviews of it, so I need say no more about it as a film. In case you don't already know, it's a 'biopic' based on the life of British mathematician turned computer scientist turned cryptographer Alan Turing. The prevailing opinion rates it Oscar material. But I'm a historian (see my Profile on the right), and historical films are always more or less distant adaptations of history or biography, so they irk me.

The central backdrop to IG is the converted Victorian mansion at Bletchley Park (BP), north of London, that was bought and taken over by the UK Government Code and Cypher School just before the Second World War. Now it so happens, due to one of those fortunate coincidences which have enriched my life, that I spent a day touring BP only a few weeks ago and wrote two blog posts about it. To find them quickly, enter bletchley in the Search box on the right. It was not my intent to write a history of the place; for that, see Sources below. But my source and I are closer to the historical truth than IG. The film makes too much depend on the brilliant mind of one person so as to accentuate the tragedy of his demise. I sympathise with it as biography, because when I was young Britain was still living in the Dark Ages of its hypocrisy towards homosexuals. But there were upwards of 9,000 select bright people working at BP, including as many translators as cryptologists; not to mention the little band of Polish mathematicians who had prised out the initial reverse engineering of the German Enigma machine before the War began. Bill Tutte, for instance, a Cambridge chemistry graduate, deduced through mathematical analysis how another German encryption machine, the Lorenz, worked without ever having seen one. Although Turing had the fundamental idea that all mental operations convertible into binary coding were computable, he never actually built a computer himself. His first decryption machine, the Bombe, was an electro-mechanical device. The first real programmable computer, the Colossus in 1944, was the work of Tommy Flowers, son of a bricklayer and never went to university, and his fellow Post Office engineers. All this is not to diminish Turing's importance – he was the most influential thinker and team leader at BP – but onlybto put him in perspective. Churchill said that Turing made the biggest single contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

Given the innacuracies, I won't spend time here discussing the more theoretical question of whether encrypting and decrypting by crptographers can be considered a form of translating. Just one remark. The film does mention that a test for potential recruits at BP was speed at solving crossword puzzles. Some people are good at it; I for one am not in spite of my wide reading. This leads me to suspect that there is specialised wiring for it in the brain as there is for translating, and that its implantation precedes education.

Anyway I'm not the only one to condemn the film as history. An article in today's Guardian Unlimited concludes:
Historically, The Imitation Game is as much of a garbled mess as a heap of unbroken code. For its appalling suggestion that Alan Turing might have covered up for a Soviet spy, it must be sent straight to the bottom of the class.
So by all means go and see IG; but bear in mind that films are entertainment, biography is speculative, and even history can only attempt to tell the truth.

Tommy Flowers. Wikipedia. 2014.

Bletchley Park, Home of the Codebreakers: Guidebook. Bletchley Park Trust, 2005. 48 p., many illustrations. Available through Amazon.

Turing machines. Wikipedia, 2014.

Bombe. Wikipedia. 2014.

Alex von Tunzelmann. The Imitation Game: inventing a new slander to insult AlanTuring. Guardian Unlimited, 20 November 2014. or click here.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game


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