|Colossus Mark 2 computer at Bletchley Park, 1944-45|
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Churchill called the thousands of puzzle-solvers and clerks who spent World War II at Bletchley Park secretly breaking enemy codes “my geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
And almost as extraordinary as their work was — some say the decryption of Germany’s Enigma machine hastened the end of the war by as many as two years — their loyalty to the Official Secrets Act is almost impossible to fathom.
Codebreakers kept silent about their war effort for decades; the British government didn’t officially recognize Bletchley Park veterans until 2009. Nowadays, it is still possible to read newspaper obituaries of 90-year-olds who never told their spouses, parents or siblings what they really did during the war.
“The Bletchley Circle,” a three-part series that begins Sunday on PBS, finds an imaginative way to give overdue credit to those unrecognized government servants, most of whom were women.
The series opens in 1943, but it’s actually a murder mystery set in 1952.
Anna Maxwell Martin (“Bleak House”) plays Susan, a bored housewife and mother of two who detects a pattern in a series of unsolved murders. When the police won’t follow up, Susan enlists three former colleagues from Bletchley Park to help her decipher the serial killer’s modus operandi.
One of the things we learned from the declassification of Bletchley Park was that a couple of years of the history of computers had been missing.
And that leads to an interesting demographic point: because computing was going in rudimentary form during WWII, a lot of women worked on computers.
A famous example is that the most widely used programming language in corporate America during the last 40 years of the 20th Century was COBOL, which was more or less devised by Admiral Grace Hopper. She had worked on the Harvard Mark I computer during WWII.
Her COBOL was notoriously verbose, the Chatty Cathy of programming languages, but it got an awful lot of work done. Not surprisingly, lots of women were COBOL programmers. (My wife was one for awhile.)
Today, the media recurrently gets worked up over the small (and quite possibly declining) number of women in the computer field.
One reason for why women aren't employed as much in computer programming these days is because languages have evolved away from COBOL's Englishness toward abstraction.
But another reason women have gotten squeezed out of programming is that government policy has responded to billionaires' demands that computer programming no longer be a middle class career appealing to American women. Instead, it should be a two-tier business with brilliant male programmers making death or glory bids to gain riches in Silicon Valley, while in the lower tier, American women are replaced by South Asian men via the H-1B visa.
The Gang of Eight wants to nearly double the number of H-1B visas, which will just continue to push American women out of computer programming.