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The Legacy of Coding

A film based on true events from the British Intelligence during WWII

The Legacy of Coding

The latest Warner Bros. film to hit theatres in the UK is “The Imitation Game”, a historical drama and thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

The film is based on the true lives and events of Alan Turing and Joan Clark, both of whom were top cryptologists in the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, which was the UK’s central decoding unit, which deciphered Axis Powers communications during World War II.

Both Turing and Clark were part of the Hut 8 unit, which was initially led by Turing himself. The specific task of Hut 8 was to solve German naval Enigma messages. The Enigma machine was invented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius during World War I which used an electro-mechanical rotor machine to cipher and decipher messages. The Enigma machine was first deciphered by the Polish Cipher Bureau in 1932, which lead to the eventual reverse-engineering of the device, which allowed for theoretical mathematics and mechanical devices to break the ciphers, called cryptologic bombs. In 1939, the Poles worked in cooperation with the UK and France, which allowed for the continuation of this effort, in what the UK intelligence codenamed “Ultra”, which was an outstanding effort the Allied Powers.

Turing developed a series of techniques that deciphered German messages, including to the improving the original Polish bomb system, which helped detect the Enigma machines settings. He also invented the Banburismus, which was a cryptanalytic process that used sequential conditional probability which inferred the settings of the Enigma machines. This reduced the time that the Polish bomb system took.

Turing joined the GC&CS in 1938, and Clarke joined in 1939 and worked directly under him in Hut 8, which at the time he was heading. This was quite an impressive feat for Clarke, because at the time, not only was she refused her full degree with a double first in Mathematics at Cambridge for being a woman, but she was also made to work originally for £2 pounds a week, under the title of “Clerk”. Within the first week, her outstanding performance was noted, but unable to receive the same promotion as a male colleague, she was classed as linguistic. For the rest of her career at Hut 8 she took great pleasure in filling out her paperwork as, “grade: linguist, languages: none”.

The job at Hut 8 was one of the most stressful in the intelligence sector. Turing and Clark were assigned to real time ciphers by primarily German U-boats that were hunting Allied ships carrying troops and supplies. Upon deciphering the location of the U-boat, they would either be sunk or avoided altogether, which saved over a hundred thousands lives. According to some, Turing alone helped expedite the war effort by up to nearly two years.

While working together, Turing proposed and Clark accepted. After several months, however, Turing confided to Clark that he was homosexual, which at the time was still illegal in the UK. Turing thereafter broke off the engagement but the two stayed close friends until his death in 1954, at the young age of 41. In 1952, Turing was arrested of gross indecency. The pioneer of modern day computing, this film is his legacy. 

The film will make it’s debut in US theatres November 28.


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