How wartime Bletchley Park made Ruth fall head-over-heels in love with maths

I’m the last in line. There has been this blog tour for over a week, in aid of maths and codes and generally saving the world. I’m saying as little as I can, because I get worried when I see so many noughts. Gazillions of them. So here is a smitten Ruth Eastham telling us why she’s crazy about them.

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“Four down, 158,000,000,000,000,000,996 to go.

That’s million, million, million to you and me. Quintillion for short.

No, I’m not talking about the number of drafts I had to do for my second book, The Messenger Bird (although it did seem like that at times). Writing may be hard graft, but what about having to crack vital, top secret enemy messages day after day without a let-up?

I’m talking BP, and not the service station and convenient-roadside-shopping kind. I’m talking Bletchley Park. The extraordinary Second World War code-breaking headquarters.

Now, I’ll admit, I’ve always been a bit of a geek. I play chess; I used to make up cryptic crossword clues just for fun; I was already partial to a bit of mathematics…

Maths may not be the nation’s favourite subject, and some of you may even need convincing just how wonderful it is. You may even scoff at the very idea of my being in love with it. But you simply need to be enlightened, as illustrated by a conversation recently with a former student of mine:

Inge: I hate maths!

Ruth: Why?

Inge: It’s BORING!

Ruth: But it’s maths that made Bletchley Park tick! If it wasn’t for maths, the Turing Bombe (first operational in September 1940) would never have been designed, enemy Enigma messages would never have been decoded, and the theories of programmable numbers would never have led, in December 1943, to the invention of… Inge… Inge?

So just how did Bletchley Park do it?

You’ve heard of Enigma Code, right?

An Enigma machine was a sort of typewriter, but with two keyboards. It was used by the Nazis to send messages. When a key is pressed on the lower keyboard, special rotors inside and a plugboard make a different letter light up on the upper keyboard.


The scrambled string of letters was sent by radio waves in Morse, and ‘Listening Stations’ located around Britain and abroad intercepted these secret messages and sent them straight to BP!

Problem was, with Enigma machines there were millions upon millions of different ways they could be set to when the message was sent! Quintillions in fact! Another problem was that the settings were changed at midnight every single day


Enter BP and the ‘Turing Bombe’, which was an automatic machine that could quickly test-out all the different possible settings. Once the correct one was found, all the messages intercepted that day could be decoded, letting the Allies make crucial decisions about the movement of soldiers, ships and war planes; likely shortening the War by two years!

Yes, two whole years!

Hitler and his generals used a machine with, not three, but twelve rotors, leading to the invention of Colossus, the great-granddaddy of all computers!

So maths is not only beautiful, it was the basis for all computing as we know it. You like your laptop, don’t you? You like being able to freely surf and chat to friends? You’ve got maths to thank for that!

So need I say more about why we should all adore mathematics?

(I’ve still to convince Inge, but I’m hoping she’ll come round…)”

Never mind Inge; I have come round. Or would have, if I thought I could do it. But I believe. And I’m a great fan of Alan Turing’s.

And for those of you collecting letters for Ruth’s mystery message competition: Mystery letter number 9=I


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