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Ipswich Icons: How Suffolk became a technological hub thanks to Adastral Park

Bletchley Park mansion, HQ for British codebreakers during the Second World War. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

Bletchley Park mansion, HQ for British codebreakers during the Second World War. Picture: JOHN NORMAN


Whilst reading this article you won’t be surprised to learn that it was written using a word processing package on a desktop computer, and this digital information was sent to the East Anglian Daily Times for conversion into print using editing software, writes John Norman of the Ipswich Society.

Adastral Park in Martlesham. Picture: LUCY TAYLORAdastral Park in Martlesham. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

However, communication wasn’t the original purpose of computers. They grew out of a need for number-crunching, either infinitely complex mathematical calculations or trial and error searches.

Furthermore, you won’t be surprised to learn this original requirement was because of the need to understand what the enemy was doing during the 1930s and ’40s; or, more precisely, for code-breaking.

True, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) had developed a difference engine 100 years previously: a mechanical device the size of a large room with similar attributes to a four-function calculator. Unfortunately, the difference engine was never built (except for a working model made for the Science Museum 150 years after Babbage’s blueprint) and mathematical calculations remained “long-hand”, on a slide rule or by using log-tables, until the Second World War.

It was the signals sent in code by Germany that got scientists thinking. At Bletchley Park (Milton Keynes) a team were working on breaking the German secret codes, in particular those generated by the Enigma cipher machine, and they had achieved some success, most notably via young engineer Alan Turin. He found the deciphering so tedious and difficult that he strived for a solution: an electronic/electro-mechanical device. Unfortunately, he had no idea who could build it.

The sculpture honouring those who have developed computers. It's near the St Isidores roundabout on Ropes Drive, in the Kesgrave/Martlesham area. Picture: JOHN NORMANThe sculpture honouring those who have developed computers. It's near the St Isidores roundabout on Ropes Drive, in the Kesgrave/Martlesham area. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

The solution lay at Dollis Hill, the GPO research facility in North West London where they had already been working on electro-mechanical devices. They now set about building Colossus, an electronic machine that began its useful working life at Bletchley Park in November, 1943. By March, 1944, its ability to break the German codes was, to say the least, extraordinary.

The boffins at Bletchley Park were so impressed with what was effectively the world’s first programmable computer carrying out a useful task (as opposed to demonstration or test runs) that they ordered 10 more. The first of these machines, built to an enhanced specification, were operational on June 1, 1944, deciphering German responses to the D-Day landings. In 1957 the computer experts at Dollis Hill built ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) to select the winning Premium Bond numbers.

In 1968 it was announced that the GPO Research facility was to move from Dollis Hill to the redundant airfield at Martlesham. Scientists went on developing and discovering the capacity and capability of computers, and developed alternative uses for them, including word processing.

In the late 1990s the then chief executive, Stewart Davies, turned the facility into a science park, and invited a number of developing companies to set up research laboratories under the collective name of Adastral Park.

Today over 4,000 people work on the campus. The vast majority are highly qualified and, in terms of the new technologies, very forward thinking. Such a concentration of innovative brain power required commemoration and a monument to their collective achievements, both at Dollis Hill and Martlesham, stands adjacent to St Isidores roundabout on Ropes Drive.

Three tall Brittany granite “propeller” shapes are tied to a central post. Each blade has a different-shape cutaway: one is part of a circle, one a parabola, and the third missing bite is a hyperbola. Each blade comprises three separate stones stacked vertically, joined with pins and injected resin. The whole sits on top of a low mound surrounded by 17 information boards telling the story of computers and computing.

One board illustrates the complex timeline, the inter-relationship between the early pioneers, their machines and the successes and failures that preceded my ability to transfer this article, using a variety of computers and software programmes, into your home.

The whole story about the history of computing is much too complex to fit into 500 words, so the next time you are passing along Ropes Drive, take a closer look. History is being made right here in Suffolk.

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