Of Men and Machines
Of Men and Machines
The first inkling I had of the work done at Bletchley Park during the Second World War on electronic codebreaking machines resulted from my efforts to find out what Alan Turing had done during the war. I had been assembling a set of original documents and papers for reproduction in a book on the origins of digital computers, when a colleague questioned the fact that Turing did not figure in the book. At this stage I knew only of Turing’s pre-war work on what we now term ‘Turing machines’, which was purely theoretical, and of his post-war work at the National Physical Laboratory, which did not lead to a working computer in the pre-1950 period on which I was concentrating (see Chapter 9). I responded to the implied challenge and gradually tracked down various brief published allusions to wartime work by Turing and others at Bletchley Park (in particular an article by Jack Good), which were then assembled into a draft article. This draft persuaded various people, especially Donald Michie and Jack Good—both of whom worked with Turing at Bletchley Park—to provide additional, although very guarded, information. I decided to try to get the British wartime work on electronic computers declassified. I wrote directly to the Prime Minister at the time, Mr Edward Heath. The reply I received, signed by the Prime Minister himself, although it politely refused my request, nevertheless constituted for several years what I think was the only unclassified official document admitting that there had been a wartime electronic computer project in Britain. The result of this investigation was my ‘On Alan Turing and the Origins of Digital Computers’, which I presented at Michie’s annual machine intelligence workshop at Edinburgh in October 1972. The proceedings of the workshop were due to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press, and after I had given my presentation I overheard two people connected with the University Press voicing concern over whether they dare include it in the book. The conversation ended with them agreeing that it would be all right to go ahead since, if there were any repercussions, it would be the head of the University Press, namely Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who would be held responsible.
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