Bletchley Park: The Undiscovered Country Estate (where we used computers to beat the Gerries)

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Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943
Image from the BBC

I watched a documentary a few days ago called “Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes,” about Tommy Flowers and Bill Tutte of Bletchley Park. Any time I watch a documentary about scientists or engineers who went unrecognized during their time, they are invariably women; Rosalind Franklin comes to mind, or Ada Lovelace. And so I kept expecting a woman to appear in the doc, but none materialized. I was disappointed, but it took me a few days to figure out why.

Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes

At first, I didn’t know why this bothered me so much. Clearly, the men featured deserved the honour. But so did so many others at Bletchley Park. To focus on a theme of undiscovered heroism and then lionize two men over ~12,000 others who worked there was a substantial oversight.

This is only part of the reason, though; primarily, I’m disappointed because as a woman, undiscovered heroism is our thing. If we’re going to get a documentary made about us, it’ll probably be a documentary about how our work was ignored while we were alive, and then discovered in a thrift auction years later. That’s how we get our name out there. So when I see a documentary about an undiscovered man, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. Men get all the regular science documentaries! Let us at least keep the scraps.

I am tired of scraps. I present to you two undiscovered Bletchley Park workers who were women. These women are so undiscovered, they weren’t even discovered by the documentary about people who were undiscovered:

  1. Mavis Batey cracked the Italian naval codes. Her wikipedia entry redirects to her husband’s, in true undiscovered fashion.
  2. An anonymous Mrs. BB correctly theorized how the keys in the Enigma were hooked up to the encyphering mechanism (before everyone else) but her theory was dismissed as too simplistic. Wired: “…discoveries made by a female codebreaker known only as ‘Mrs. BB’ could have opened the secrets of the encoding machine and shortened the war.”

80% of Bletchley Park was female, and these are just two stories I dug up with light googling. Just think what else we could dig up if we put our internets together!

Above all, we have to keep finding and repeating these stories as often as we can. With regard to female achievements in science and engineering, absence of evidence is often taken as evidence of absence. This doc shows that model of thinking to be wrong. Brilliant work is often lost to history, especially if the work is done by people from whom brilliance is not expected. We must seek out these stories (and trumpet them!) or risk feeding that same expectation that we’ve done nothing.

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