Maths and magic – the secret of Bletchley


Colossus was the World’s first electronic digital computer.

Built from Post Office spare parts, it was operational from February 1944 at Bletchley Park, the British Government’s code breaking headquarters.

Colossus followed on from the work that Alan Turing had done decoding the signals encrypted by the German Enigma machines.

It was essential to the latter stages of the war in helping the Allies understand radio traffic between German High Command and their army divisions in the field.  It’s one of the reasons that the Allies knew the location of 58 of the 60 German divisions in Normandy on the eve of D-Day.

Powerful though Colossus was it required a host of human beings to decipher the material being produced by this breakthrough.

These people, or cryptanalysts, worked in two sections. Section One under a chap called Professor Max Newman  (known as the Newmanry) worked with the various machines including Colossus to mathematically reduce the vast probabilities to more manageable proportions.

Section Two under Major Ralph Tester (the Testery) then attempted to decode the signals by sheer intellectual graft, ingenuity and mind-boggling amounts of patience.

Newman’s team were mathematicians working with pure mathematical probabilities that a series of characters might represent a German word or words. Tester’s team were a mixture of military personnel and civilians working on experience, instinct and intellect to ‘figure out’ what the Germans might be trying to say.

The data was immensely powerful and the mathematicians essential in allowing Bletchley to get close to cracking German codes. However the final leg was done by people chewing endless pencil ends and wrestling hour after hour trying to force their brains to be more instinctive and intuitive.

Roy Jenkins (British Home Secretary in the late 1960s and Testery cryptanalyst) is quoted by his biographer, John Campbell, as writing “We tried extremely hard feeling it was the least that we could do as we sat there in safety while the assault on the European mainland was launched and V-1s and V-2s descended on London. And trying hard meant straining to get the last ounce of convoluted ingenuity out of one’s brain, rather like a gymnast who tries to bend his bones into positions more unnatural than he had ever achieved before”.

As the marketing business learns to welcome the mathematicians lets hope there is still a place for people that can perform the mental gymnastics that we really need to break the codes locked inside the data and create new futures for brands. People whose brains are more instinctive and intuitive than simply logical and deductive.

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4 Replies to “Maths and magic – the secret of Bletchley”

  1. You can’t talk about Colossus without mentioning Tommy Flowers, the GPO engineer who designed it.

  2. Yeah, let’s hope so. The real trouble with our community is the near-zero credibility (right or wrong) we have with those holding the purse strings.
    Everybody, including “respectable communities” such as Operations, Finance etc., has screwed it up, more than a few times, while dealing with (and massaging, my corporate experience suggests) figures.
    Marketing people are rarely allowed that luxury, partly our own fault.
    Countermeasures? In order of importance:
    1) Be more numerate (basic statistics is more than enough in my experience so far, few people can tell average from weighted average…it’s a great bluff, try that) but more importantly,
    2) Be more of what we are supposed to be in the first place: “sales”, streetwise sales, simple and direct. Let’s try and get more inspiration from those rugged geniuses who can sell sand in the desert and know and understand real people.
    This is where there is too much snub in our trade and exactly where it bites back in our arse.
    If we are paid to sell, we need to be “sales”: intuitive and instinctual, instead of over-indulging in the kind of intellectualism Ogilvy exposed in his “Confessions” (widespread tendency in marketing).
    So yeah, there is hope, it is in our hands: all in all technology is about how you use it.
    In the meantime, I would seriously worry only the day they teach a robot empathy, or to crack a joke.
    By the way, a couple of good ones, that still do wonders vs. “number” people to get away in awkward situations:
    1) Do you know what NPV is? says the marketing guy. Of course, it is Net Present Value, say the number guy.
    No, it is “Numbers Prevent Vision”. A good CEO will laugh and be with you.
    2) Straight from Ryan Holmes (CEO @ HootSuite, self-irony always welcome sign of intelligence): “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”

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