Bletchley Park's unheard stories: The Imitation Game's female tech trailblazers

This is a guest blog by Anne Marie Neatham, chief operating officer at Ocado Technology

Last week saw the release of The Imitation Game, a new film about WWII code breakers at Bletchley Park. Much has been made of the man portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, brilliant polymath Alan Turing, but the film is also to be commended for paying due attention to Joan Clarke’s extraordinary and unprecedented contribution to the code breaking effort, as portrayed in the film by Keira Knightly.  

Women in technology can sometimes be overshadowed, despite having a notable presence in the archives of technology trailblazers – particularly at Bletchley Park. Outnumbering men by four to one, women at Bletchley Park included secretaries, Wrens, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force members (Waafs), linguists, and a handful of hyper-intelligent codebreakers such as the little known Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Ruth Briggs.

Joan Clarke was recruited fresh out of Cambridge, where she gained a double first in Mathematics. She arrived at Bletchley Park in 1939 to join the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). Initially assigned clerical work and paid just under £2 a day, her numismatic prowess was quickly picked up on and she was put in Hut 8 in a team led by Alan Turing. Hut 8 was tasked with solving German Kriegsmarine (naval) Enigma messages.

The navy ciphers decoded by Clarke and her colleagues were much harder to break than other German messages, and largely related to U-boats that were hunting down allied ships carrying troops and supplies from the US to Europe. Her task was to break these ciphers in real-time, one of the most high-pressure jobs at Bletchley Park. U-boats would then either be sunk or circumnavigated, saving thousands of lives.

Clarke isn’t alone in the British archives of women who have blazed trails in technology. Ada Lovelace, widely recognised as the world’s first computer programmer, worked alongside Charles Babbage in the early 19th century. Notable work of hers includes writing the code on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and devising a method of calculation now recognised as the world’s first ever computer program. She has subsequently been honoured for her achievements, and even has a day named after her that celebrates the achievements of women in technology.

Following in Ada’s footsteps was Hedy Lamarr, better known perhaps as a Hollywood film star, but also a notable computing pioneer. She holds a deserved place in tech history for her 1941 work with composer George Antheil to develop an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping. Lamarr and Antheil both now feature in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame for this system. Designed during WWII, it prevented enemy fighters being able to force US radio controlled torpedoes off route by jamming transmissions to them and the technology has since become a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

Moving through the archives we find Dina St Jonhston. In the late 50s, Dina founded the UK’s first ever software house, Vaughan Programming Services, developing software for the BBC, British Rail and Unilever. The company produced pioneering real-time passenger information systems and flight simulators for the RAF, with Dina remaining an active programmer until her retirement in 1996.

Clarke’s achievements have been seldom recognised up until now. Despite being appointed MBE in 1947 for her work during WW2, and the recognition of her work by the British Numismatic Society in 1986 when she was awarded the Sanford Saltus Gold Medal, many are surprised by how pivotal her role at Bletchley Park was. Following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Clarke and Turing, children from across the country are being invited to try their hands at coding at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC).  

Taking place every weekend from 1 November 2014 until August 2015, the free Weekend Codability Project is sponsored by Ocado Technology. Aimed at girls and boys up to the age of 16, it’s part of Ocado’s wider scheme Code for Life. It’s hoped this initiative will galvanise our younger generation’s passion for coding – and possibly even inspire some of them to join the ranks of our most venerable British computing pioneers.