Why does Kellogg have a Bletchley Park Week?

14 February 2018

Our President, Jonathan Michie tells us why Kellogg College has an annual week-long programme of events celebrating the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

The Enigma machine. Photo: John Cairns

Bletchley Park is emerging from decades of secrecy to become increasingly appreciated as the centre for British codebreaking during World War Two, the home of the world’s first programmable digital computer, designed to assist with the process.

But apart from Bletchley and Kellogg both being centres of excellence, innovation, and path-breaking developments, why else have we forged a particular link, including Kellogg’s annual ‘Bletchley Park Week’?

Anyone who has seen The Imitation Game will know that there were very few women codebreakers, although there were certainly many women involved in the overall process – indeed, three quarters of the workforce were women.

One of the women involved in the analysis of decrypted signals was Joan Watkins, who changed her name to Joan Thirsk when she married James (Jimmy) Thirsk, one of her colleagues at Bletchley, whose role the Bletchley Role of Honour gives as ‘Traffic Analyst’, referring to the traffic in coded messages rather than the trucks driving round Bletchley.

Joan Thirsk went on to be a distinguished academic and Fellow of Kellogg, playing a leading role in the development of agricultural history as an academic discipline. She died aged 91 in 2013. At last year’s Bletchley Park Week Jimmy Thirsk – then 104 years old – gave a fascinating account of the work at Bletchley.

A further link is that many of our fellows and students have an interest in Bletchley, most particularly those on the MSc in Software Engineering and MSc in Software & Systems Security. Professor Andrew Martin has been made a Trustee of Bletchley Park, and Mick Smith – who has written several books on Bletchley – is the Bletchley Park Fellow at Kellogg.

I should declare an interest, in that my dad Donald Michie was a cryptanalyst at Bletchley. He and Alan Turing went to the pub once a week to play chess, not because either was any good, but so they could discuss how one might create a machine that could not only play chess, but could learn as it did so – which led in time to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Bletchley kindly donated to Kellogg many photos from World War Two, some of which are in the corridor to the left of the College Reception, including these of Donald Michie, Alan Turing, and Joan Thirsk.

It has been pointed out by many that the film The Imitation Game contained a number of historical inaccuracies, perhaps required by Hollywood. To my mind the most egregious is the scene with Alan Turing, playing chess, in the pub, with his girlfriend.

To find out about Bletchley Park Week 2018 (4th March – 10th March), including the full programme of events, visit this page.

Jonathan Michie, February 2018