Tag Archives: Bletchley Park

World War I exhibition on tour

Last Post: Remembering the First World War, an exhibition curated by the BPMA and the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, is once again on tour. The exhibition explores the vital role played by the Post Office during the First World War, telling the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front, and examining the essential role played by postal communications.

Last Post is currently on display at two venues, the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Fife, Scotland. Later this year it will travel to the Guildhall Library, London, and Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition on wartime communications. While Andrew Carnegie is best known for using his huge fortune to build libraries and cultural venues, and found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his early years he worked as a telegraph messenger.

At the aged of 13 Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania with his family, securing a job two years later as a telegraph messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company. Carnegie was quickly promoted to telegraph operator, but left aged 18 to work at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. By the time he was 20 Carnegie was investing in railway companies and learning about how they were managed; he was later to become rich through investments in the oil and steel industries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries telegraphy was an important – and the fastest – means of communication, and Post Office telegraphists were vital to wartime communications. Last Post: Remembering the First World War examines the impact of telegraphy on the war, and includes rarely-seen images of frontline telecommunications from the BPMA and Imperial War Museum’s collections.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Visit our website to see the tour dates for Last Post: Remembering the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1960 – see it on Flickr.

The birth centenary of Alan Turing

Tomorrow is the birth centenary of Alan Turing the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist who was highly influential in the development of computers and artificial intelligence.

A stamp from the Britons of Distinction issue, 23 February 2012. 1st Class – Alan Turing.

A stamp from the Britons of Distinction issue, 23 February 2012. 1st Class – Alan Turing.

Turing is perhaps most famous for his work during World War 2 at the code breaking centre in Bletchley Park. There he and others broke a number of German codes, including that of the Enigma machine.

At Bletchley Park Turing worked with a number of engineers seconded from the General Post Office’s engineering department, including Gordon Radley and Tommy Flowers. Radley and Flowers were both involved in the development of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which broke the Nazi’s Lorenz codes and convinced General Eisenhower to go ahead with D-Day. While Alan Turing was not directly involved in the development of Colossus his work fed in to the thinking behind it.

After the war Gordon Radley returned to the Post Office where he was involved in the development of the first transatlantic submarine cable, the invention the hearing aid, and projects to mechanise post sorting which led to the development of the postcode. He eventually rose to become Director General (Secretary to the Post Office), the first engineer to do so.

Tommy Flowers also returned to the Post Office after his time as a code breaker, where he was involved in developing the pioneering electronic telephone exchange at Highgate Wood, and ERNIE, the random number generator used by Premium Bonds.

Alan Turing’s post-war work and legacy are even more significant. Until his death in 1954 Turing undertook pioneering work in computer development and programming, mathematical biology and morphogenesis. He also developed the “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence, which states that a machine can only be said to be intelligent if its behaviours are indistinguishable from that of a human being.

A stamp from The Inventors' Tale issue, 12 January 1999. 63p – Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers).

A stamp from The Inventors’ Tale issue, 12 January 1999. 63p – Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing’s work on computers).

For this and his many achievements Alan Turing is often labelled a “genius”. A stamp from 1999, part of The Inventor’s Tale issue, is testament to this: it features E Paolozzi’s artwork Computers, portraying a computer inside a human head. It is one of many of Paolozzi’s artworks inspired by Alan Turing.

A stamp released earlier this year (pictured above) as part of the Britons of Distinction issue commemorates Turing’s work as a mathematician, computer scientist and code breaker. The stamp shows Turing’s “Bombe” code breaking machine at Bletchley Park.

2012 is Alan Turing Year, celebrating the life and work of Alan Turing.

Britons of Distinction

Royal Mail is celebrating the lives and work of ten prominent Britons with a new set of stamps launched today. The Britons of Distinction stamps celebrate ten distinguished individuals from the realms of science and technology, architecture, politics and the arts who have all made a major contribution to British society.

The ten 1st Class stamps feature a mixture of portraits and images of these individuals and their achievements.

1st Class – Sir Basil Spence – architect of Coventry Cathedral

Knighted for services to architecture, particularly his designs for the new Coventry Cathedral, opened in 1962, after the original was bombed. The image shows Coventry Cathedral.

1st Class – Frederick Delius – opera, choral and orchestral composer

The First Cuckoo stamp, British Composers, issued 14 May 1985

The First Cuckoo stamp, British Composers, issued 14 May 1985

Yorkshire-born composer of choral and orchestral works. Born in 1862 and most renowned for music evoking a timeless English pastoral idyll. Delius’ The First Cuckoo was commemorated on a stamp in 1985 (pictured right).

1st Class – Mary ‘May’ Morris – designer and textile artist

Textile artist and designer celebrated for her embroidery; daughter of the artist and thinker William Morris (whose work was featured on stamps last year). The image shows Orange Tree, designed and embroidered by May Morris.

1st Class – Odette Hallowes – SOE agent in occupied France

French-born British secret agent in wartime France, who survived solitary confinement in German concentration camps.

1st Class – Thomas Newcomen – inventor of the atmospheric steam engine

Devon ironmonger, engineer and inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, which helped power the Industrial Revolution. His first working engine was installed at a coalmine near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.

1st Class – Kathleen Ferrier – contralto performer of opera and song

Lancashire-born contralto whose international opera and song career was prematurely ended by her death from cancer. Ferrier worked for the GPO as a telephonist on two occasions, and you can view her nomination papers for 1930 and 1934 on the Ancestry website.

1st Class – Augustus Pugin – Gothic revival architect and designer

Architect, designer and advocate of the Gothic style whose commissions included the interiors of the Palace of Westminster. The stamp shows Pugin’s interior of the Palace of Westminster.

1st Class – Montague Rhodes James – scholar and author of ghost stories

Cambridge academic and author of chilling ghost stories, originally written as entertainments for his friends.

1st Class – Alan Turing – mathematician and code breaker

Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers), Millennium Series. The Investors' Tale, issued 1999

Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers), Millennium Series. The Investors' Tale, issued 1999

Mathematician and computer scientist, whose work with the code breakers at Bletchley Park helped to speed up the end of the Second World War. The stamp shows Turing’s Bombe code breaking machine at Bletchley Park. Turing previously featured on a stamp in 1999 (pictured right).

1st Class – Joan Mary Fry – Quaker relief worker and social reformer

Quaker campaigner for pacifism and social reform, who organised food relief in Germany after the First World War, and then in Wales

Two different pictorial first day of issue postmarks are available.

Britons of Distinction first day of issue handstamps

Britons of Distinction first day of issue handstamps

Stamps and stamp products are available at all Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/stamps, the Royal Mail eBay shop and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.

Designing the postcode: sorting machines, psychology and Sir Gordon Radley

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

As mentioned in previous posts, the GPO’s design of the modern postcode became, after the Second World War, a systematic, long-term project which was part of wider attempts at designing sorting machines for a future national sorting system based on new technology. The vision outlined by leading engineers and postal experts in 1946, when sorting was predominantly done by hand at the sorting frame, was of a future system in which the national flow of mail would pass through large, mechanised sorting offices containing machines capable of “reading” each address. Their ultimate goal was to have human labour largely replaced within a generation by the new system, in which the public would cooperate by adding a code when addressing their letters to enable both interpretation and handling to be processed by machines.

As we have seen, as both postmen’s wages and the national volume of mail continued to rise over this period, there was good incentive to pursue these aims and to make what was termed the “code-sort concept” a reality. In the 1950s, the formative years of postal coding theory and practice, new lines of research pursued by GPO engineers helped lock particular characteristics into today’s familiar alpha-numeric postcode, as records held by the BPMA make clear. In particular the files of the Mechanical Aids Committee (MAC) and its subcommittees, which guided GPO policy on letter mechanisation and postcoding, show that choosing from many possible alternative code designs was no simple business.

A colour print of Mount Pleasant sorting office. The print is done in a comical style, portraying the 'un-pleasant' nature of the sorting office with its electronic sorting machine. Post, post bags and postmen are being flung through the office while two managers in suits stand in the middle. Outside is a post van with 'ER' on the side.

A colour print of Mount Pleasant sorting office. The print is done in a comical style, portraying the 'un-pleasant' nature of the sorting office with its electronic sorting machine. Post, post bags and postmen are being flung through the office while two managers in suits stand in the middle. Outside is a post van with 'ER' on the side. (Circa 1965)

One aspect of 1950s postal engineering involved trying to understand the psychological processes at work during the act of sorting letters when operating the new experimental machines then being trialled. This was an important step in both the development of the postcode and also in the GPO’s understanding of the so-called “man-machine interface”. Although at the outset it was hoped optical character recognition technology (OCR) might develop to the point of being able to reliably “read” handwritten postcodes, it was known early on that this was decades away at best. Machines for preparing and stacking the mail were then in development and, through an intricate arrangement of rollers, belts, diverters and memory storage, there were excellent prospects for an economical and reliable automatic sorting machine.

The problem was uniting these two phases of sorting – initial preparation of mail entering a sorting office into uniform piles followed by automatic sorting of that mail for particular destinations. In the absence of OCR, people stationed at keyboards (the man-machine interface) would still be needed to read the postcodes on letters and mark each with the correct machine-readable binary imprint. In any national code-sort system this would mean many millions of keystrokes every working day which placed a great financial premium on finding the most efficient arrangement of characters when designing the optimal postcode. A format acceptable to the public and major commercial mail users and also capable of accommodating the required address information was needed. But of no less importance was arriving at a format agreeable to the postman at his keyboard. An optimal format needed to encourage the most efficient possible coordination of hand, eye and brain.

Sir Gordon Radley

Sir Gordon Radley

A key figure in this regard was Sir Gordon Radley who took over the Mechanical Aids Committee (MAC) in 1955. This coincided with his appointment as Director General (Secretary to the Post Office), the first engineer to hold this office. Born in Birmingham in 1898, Radley gained his Doctorate in Engineering and served with the Royal Engineers during WWI. He joined the GPO in 1920 where he gained successive promotions through the Engineering Department. During WWII he and fellow telephone engineer Tommy Flowers made significant contributions to code-breaking at Bletchley Park and the design of “Colossus”. He spent ten years as Controller of Dollis Hill Research Station, the GPO centre for technological research, where he earned international fame for leading the development of the first transatlantic submarine cable and helping to invent the hearing aid.

When Radley chaired his first MAC meeting on 16 November 1955, he spoke of injecting more efficiency and pro-activity into the mechanisation field, issuing tighter deadlines and drafting in more senior staff. He oversaw the continuation of various long-term lines of technical enquiry and wished to see quicker progress in the development of postcodes, identifying the coding of letters by fluorescent marks as a priority project. Here, he encouraged Mr. A. Crisswell, a Deputy Regional Postal Director who headed the coding study group, to take a more liberal approach and worry less about the financial prospects of new ideas. Crisswell was directed to increase collaboration with operational experts in the Postal Services Department and to specify the desired characteristics of a code and to consult mathematicians specialising in coding theory.

Radley’s personal intervention into developing codes came as a series of questions posed in April 1956. A series of field trials with the Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (SPLSM) were then underway at Bath. There, postmen were trained to operate the machine’s keyboard to which letters were presented for processing, in which a memorised list of two-letter codes (denoting counties and towns) were added to the letters based on their addresses at between 32 and 52 items per minute. Their movements were filmed and then timed and analysed, prompting a series of questions on the MAC about how to deal with this data, with Radley leading the way. “Which kinds of codes are easiest to learn and use?” he asked. “What is the relationship between number of codes in a series and learning time?”, “What is the relationship between coding time and the number of possible codes to choose from?”, “How long does plural coding take relative to simple coding?” and “What is the best training method?”.

Single Position Letter Sorting Machine

Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (1956-1986)

Such precise questions were used to direct new lines of research on the MAC as they sought to evolve better and better machines for letter sorting, of which the coding position was a vital “link”. The Bath trials and the manner in which their results were put to use by GPO engineers is just one early episode in a long history of ergonomic design for coding desks and added to a body of research into the physical and mental demands made upon postmen who sorted the mail. Radley’s questions might also be seen as illustrating the diversity of factors at play in choosing the most suitable code for the British postal service.

A weekend at Bletchley

Several BPMA staff and Friends had a very enjoyable two days at Bletchley Park over the Bank Holiday weekend.  We were there as part of the Post Office at War weekend, an event organised as part of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps.

BPMA Friend Richard West and Exhibitions Officer Alison Norris staff the BPMA table

BPMA Friend Richard West and Exhibitions Officer Alison Norris staff the BPMA table

The BPMA had a table where we could meet visitors to Bletchley Park and let them know about the BPMA and its collections. Several of the BPMA Friends made a much valued contribution, helping to promote us and sharing their personal expertise on a number of different topics with visitors. 

They also helped us sell a variety of BPMA products, including books and postcards.  The new Shire Post Offices book by our curator, Julian Stray, was particularly sought after, selling out on the second day.

Some of the creative designs for stamps

Some of the creative designs for stamps

Our activities for younger visitors proved very popular, particularly designing your own stamp and making secret codes.

Curator Vyki Sparkes gave a well received talk about the vital and difficult work of the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad during the Second World War.  They salvage squad had the responsibility of rescuing mail from pillar boxes that had been damaged or buried by enemy air raids.

Visitors enjoying the BPMA display

Visitors enjoying the BPMA display

It was standing room only in the cinema at Bletchley Park where films were being shown from our third collection of GPO films – If War Should Come.  We also took a graphic display of ten panels illustrating the essential work of the GPO on the home front during the Second World War.

1940s postman, complete with authentic bicycle

1940s postman, complete with authentic bicycle

There was much else going on during the weekend including tours, WW2 re-enactors, several other talks (including Christine Earle’s ‘The Post Office Went to War’) some rarely seen items from the Royal Philatelic Collection and other children’s activities, including letter writing and games with a former evacuee.

Bletchley Park is well worth a visit and your ticket allows admission for a whole year.

The ‘Rescue Man’ and the ‘Danger Squad’: Frederick G. Gurr and the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad

This coming Bank Holiday Monday, Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator at the BPMA will give a short talk at Bletchley Park on a little known story of heroism and bravery: Frederick G. Gurr and the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad. The talk is one of many activities taking place at Bletchley Park as part of the Post Office at War weekend.

During the Blitz in the Second World War the Salvage Squad were featured in newspapers, a radio broadcast, and Gurr, their overseer, was awarded the British Empire Medal by King George VI for his heroism. Despite these accolades, this small but important group fell into obscurity – until the recent discovery of a collection of scrapbooks and photographs in our museum collection.

A newspaper article in Gurr's scrapbook about the Salvage Squad meeting George VI

A newspaper article in Gurr's scrapbook about the Salvage Squad meeting George VI

Delayed by Enemy Action handstamp impression

Delayed by Enemy Action handstamp impression

Correspondence was of crucial importance during the Second World War, not only for military or governmental purposes but to maintain social morale. During the War, the Post Office’s intention was that no letter should be delayed more than 48 hours due to enemy action.

From 1940 with the continuous heavy bombardment of London, as well as other parts of the UK, this aim became even more challenging. Frederick G. Gurr, a postman close to retirement in the City of London, was concerned that ordinary Salvage squads did not recognise the importance of the mail, and set up the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad. Their purpose: to rescue the mail, money and supplies from Post Offices and letterboxes bombed in the City of London. Gurr kept newspaper cuttings and photographs relating to the squad in a homemade scrapbook, all carefully annotated with his own handwritten accounts.

A newspaper article in the scrapbook showing how Gurr's team rescued £40,000 from a safe

A newspaper article in the scrapbook showing how Gurr's team rescued £40,000 from a safe

The talk at Bletchley Park will feature key moments of the 1940-41 Blitz, told through the pages of this scrapbook and accompanying photographs. All are welcome, and the talk is free, to those who have a valid entry ticket to Bletchley Park.

For those who cannot make it to the Bletchley event, Gurr’s wartime scrapbook is currently on display in the Treasures of the Archive exhibition, in our Search Room.

The Post Office at War at Bletchley Park

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend the 2010: Festival of Stamps will be celebrating the Post Office at War event at Bletchley Park.

Taking place on Sunday 29 & Monday 30 August, the two days will remember the role of the Post Office during World War Two and the importance of stamps in our history.

As well as running children’s’ activities on code breaking, designing your own stamp, and writing an airgraph, the BPMA will be taking our exhibition The GPO and the Home Front. The exhibition explores the impact World War Two had on the largest employer in Britain, when a third of its staff joined active service. It also looks at the role that GPO staff played in preserving normal functioning on the home front, helping to promote the domestic war effort and support military operations. Ensuring mail got to troops was also an integral part of the war effort, helping to keep up morale.

Bletchley Park Mansion

Bletchley Park Mansion

A series of talks over the weekend will include BPMA Assistant Curator Vyki Sparkes, who will be discussing the little known GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad, using unique research from the Royal Mail Archive.

The Enigma Cinema will be showing BPMA films from our GPO Film collection If War Should Come. The 18 films in this collection provide a fascinating and poignant insight into a nation on the cusp of war and its transition to the brutal realities of life in the Blitz.

Elsewhere at Bletchley, the Post Office Vehicle Club will be putting on a display of vehicles used by the Post Office during the war. Also on display will be a vast collection of historic stamps, representing all aspects of life.

Bletchley Park Post Office

Bletchley Park Post Office

Further children’s activities around the site will include learning what it was like to write home as a wartime evacuee, and re-enactors will show how people lived during the war. There will also be a rare opportunity to see a stunning display of World War Two airpower with a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flypast featuring a Hurricane and a Spitfire.

We hope you can join us for what promises to be an exciting weekend!

For more information and how to get there, please visit the Bletchley Park website.

Spring Stampex 2010

Merchandise on display at the Friends of the BPMA stall at Spring Stampex 2010.

Merchandise on display at the Friends of the BPMA stall at Spring Stampex 2010.

The 2010 Spring Stampex opened today at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London. The BPMA Friends can be found at stand 20 this year. They will be happy to tell you more about the BPMA, and you can also become a Friend yourself.

Next door at stand 18 is Bletchley Park Post Office, who will be hosting an event as part of the London 2010: Festival of Stamps in August – you will be able to find out more about this nearer the time.

As part of their stand on the Village Green at Stampex, Royal Mail are offering visitors the chance to make their own smilers. The image below is a Smiler sheet created by Chairman of the BPMA Friends Cyril Macey. It shows the BPMA Friends stand, with 2010 Festival Manager Jennifer Flippance and John Chapman from Bletchley Post Office.

A Smiler sheet created at Stampex showing the Friends of the BPMA stall

A Smiler sheet created at Stampex showing the Friends of the BPMA stall

Admission to Stampex is free, and the show is on until Saturday (27 February). For more details visit the Stampex website: www.stampex.ltd.uk

Colossus and D-Day

65 years ago today General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff met to discuss the Normandy landings, or D-Day. The landings had been planned for some time and their success depended on good weather for the crossing and landing, and minimal resistance from German troops so that the Allies could gain a foothold.

Weather conditions had been too poor for a landing in early June 1944, but chief meteorologist James Martin Stagg forecast an improvement on 6th June. This weather forecast is usually cited as the deciding factor in Eisenhower’s decision to set D-Day for 6th June. However, Eisenhower is said to have received another piece of information during that meeting which was just as crucial, and he had the skill and inventiveness of the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill to thank for it.

Post Office engineers re-wire a telephone exchange after an air raid. Post Office telephone engineers developed the first programmable electronic computer during the 2nd World War.

Post Office engineers re-wire a telephone exchange after an air raid. Post Office telephone engineers developed the first programmable electronic computer during the 2nd World War.

Before the war Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers and his team at Dollis Hill had worked in switching electronics, exploring the possibilities for electronic telephone exchanges. But by the early 1940s they were helping the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. Colossus, later recognised as the world’s first programmable electronic computer, was their greatest achievement.

Colossus was primarily developed to decipher the Nazi Lorenz codes, high-level encryptions used by senior personnel, rather than the more famous Enigma codes used by field units. Computer technology was in its infancy in the 1940s and when in early 1943 Flowers proposed the machine, which would run on 1800 valves (vacuum tubes), there was great scepticism that it would work as until that point the most complicated electronic device had used about 150 valves.

But by December 1943 Colossus Mark 1 was working and it was soon moved to Bletchley Park, where it was able to break German codes within hours. An improved version, Colossus Mark 2, using 2400 valves, was unveiled on 1st June 1944, four days before Eisenhower made his decision about D-Day.

An essay by Flowers published in Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Code-breaking Computers describes the crucial meeting between General Eisenhower and his staff held on 5th June 1944. During that meeting a note summarising a recent Colossus decryption was handed to Eisenhower. It confirmed that Hitler was aware of troop build-ups in southern England, but would not be sending extra troops to Normandy as he was certain that Allied preparations were a hoax. This information was said to have convinced Eisenhower that the Normandy landings should take place the next day.

But whether it was the weather forecast or the Colossus decryption which tipped the balance in favour of 6th June, Flowers and the Post Office Research Station team made a remarkable advance in computer technology. By the end of the war 10 Colossus Mark 2 computers were in use at Bletchley Park, providing vital information to Allies forces, which certainly reduced the length of the war. After the war Flowers and his team returned to their work in switching, later pioneering all-electronic telephone exchanges. Their ingenuity was only recognised in the 1970s when restrictions on the Colossus project under the Official Secrets Act were lifted.