Codebreaker Bill Tutte to be celebrated in centenary exhibition

  |  Published: May 4th 2017
Bill Tutte in 1950 (Courtesy of Richard Youlden); the Lorenz system (Image by Shaun Armstrong/mubsta.com)
Bill Tutte in 1950 (Courtesy of Richard Youlden); the Lorenz system (Image by Shaun Armstrong/mubsta.com)

Bletchley Park is to celebrate the centenary of Bill Tutte's birth with a new exhibition about the elite Codebreaker. The display will open on 14 May with the Bill Tutte Centenary Symposium, a series of lectures exploring the life and works of the renowned mathematician.

Tutte, a Cambridge graduate from Newmarket, made an often overlooked achievement in unravelling the working of the Lorenz machine, a more complex system than Enigma that was used by the German high command. He then devised a statistical method of breaking the code, allowing Bletchley Park to decode some of the most top-secret messages sent during the war and paving the way for the creation of Colossus, the world's first semi-programmable electronic computer.

After the war, Tutte's work in graph theory led to some of the key mathematical developments that have shaped the internet today, such as the science behind search engines.

"As with many of his wartime colleagues, Bill Tutte's impact at Bletchley Park during the Second World War is equal to the importance of his legacy to mathematics and computing today," says Iain Standen, CEO of the Bletchley Park Trust. "We are delighted to be marking the centenary of his birth with a series of lectures on his life and work, at the Bill Tutte Centenary Symposium, here in the Mansion. This also marks the opening of a new exhibition - 'Bill Tutte: Mathematician + Codebreaker' - that will give our visitors the chance to find out about his remarkable achievements."

Tutte's successes were on a par with those of Alan Turing, who received an OBE for his wartime work, yet Tutte was granted no recognition from the Government during his lifetime. After leaving Bletchley Park he was appointed a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, before emigrating to Canada, where he became a renowned mathematician and professor at Waterloo University, near Toronto. He died on 2 May 2002, aged 84.

Dr David Kenyon, Research Historian at Bletchley Park, says: "Tutte’s contribution was a turning point in what Bletchley Park was able to achieve during WW2. The Allies' understanding of the German plans in France prior to D-Day is very significantly based on Fish [Lorenz] intercepts rather than Enigma. Had they not had this intelligence, their understanding would have been much weaker."

Milton Keynes-based technology company White Clarke Group has supported the exhibition. Group CEO Brendan Gleeson says: “Without strong mathematicians like Bill Tutte it is possible that the outcome of the war could have been very different and that we may not have the same quality of modern information technology we have today. The knowledge that came out of Bletchley Park set the foundations for the work being carried out in technologies such as Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence today.”

'Bill Tutte: Mathematician + Codebreaker’ opens to the general public on 15 May, following the Bill Tutte Symposium on 14 May. Speakers at the symposium include Dr Kenyon, Tony Comer (GCHQ Historian), Gordon Corera (BBC Security Correspondent), Dr David Bedford (School of Computing and Mathematics, Keele University) and Claire Butterfield (Bill Tutte Memorial Fund).  The exhibition is free with entry to the museum, and tickets for the Symposium start at £18 and can be purchased at the new Bletchley Park website.

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