Bombe Goes On Display To Celebrate Alan Turing Anniversary
Written by Sue Gee   
Saturday, 23 June 2018

Today, on the 106th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, the UK National Museum of Computing is opening a gallery dedicated to the Bombe. Designed by Turing, this electro-mechanical machine was used to speed up the cracking of encrypted messages during WW II.

The Bombe Gallery is the new home to the working replica of the machine that has been credited with shortening the conflict by up to two years. It is so linked to the name of Alan Turing that when a stamp to commemorate Turing was issed in 2012, it depicted the Bombe rather than Turing himself.


We have covered the history of codebreaking and the birth of computing at Bletchley Park during the 1940's elsewhere on I Programmer, see, for example. our history article Codebreaking and Colossus.

However, to quickly sketch the background to this news, the Bombe was the electro-mechanical device used by British codebreakers to crack the Enigma codes used by the Germans. The Bombe was derived from work carried out by Polish cryptographers who handed over copies of the Enigma machines together with details of their "bomba kryptologiczna" prior to the German invasion of Poland. The British version was designed by Alan Turing, refined by Gordon Welchman and construction was led by to Harold Keen, an engineer at the British Tabulating Machine Company. The machines allowed up to 5,000 messages a day to be decoded, a feat that is now considered pivotal to the Allied Forces winning the war. Over the course of their operation Bletchley Park  210 Bombes, built by the British Tabulating Machine Company and all of were dismantled at the end of the war due to the concern to keep the code breaking effort secret. However a fully-functioning replica, rebuilt over the course of 13 years by a group of enthusiasts, lead by John Harper, using the original blueprints, was completed in 2007. This short video shows it in action:


This replica gained the  Engineering Heritage Award in 2009 to honor Turing, Welchman and Keen and also in recognition of the:

"fantastic work of enthusiasts who rebuilt the Bombe with such care and passion.”

In 2014 members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the body responsible for this award, were asked to vote for their favorite recipient of the award among 99 candidates and the Bombe topped to the poll. 



Until recently the replica Bombe has been part of the codebreaking display at Bletchley Park but now it has made the short move to The National Museum of Computing which is housed in huts in the grounds of Bletchley Park that were constructed during the war. Preserving the replica in the new Bombe Gallery, in Block H, was achieved thanks to raising £60,000 through a crowd funding effort. 

Andrew Herbert, TNMOC chairman, said earlier this year:

"To house the reconstructed Bombe close to the Colossus Rebuild makes a lot of sense from many perspectives. As a pre-computing electro-mechanical device, the Bombe will help our visitors better understand the beginnings of computing and the general thought processes that led to the development of Colossus and subsequent computers.

"The story of the design of the Bombe by Alan Turing, the father of computer science, leads very appropriately into the eight decades of computing that we curate. Even the manufacture of the Bombes leads directly to British computing history – the originals were built by the British Tabulating Machine company (BTM) in Letchworth, which later became part of ICT, then ICL and now Fujitsu."

The reconstructed Bombe is now located very close to the existing world-famous rebuild of Colossus that helped break the Lorenz cipher of German High Command during the Second World War. Together these two displays explore the ingenuity and inventiveness of the Second World War codebreakers – and the beginnings of the digital world. 



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Last Updated ( Sunday, 23 September 2018 )