A history lesson in digitisation

 In Blogs

Cate Connolly, Universal McCann London said “The digital revolution has not just arrived, it has well and truly settled in”. She’s right of course. It has been settling in for the last 70 years or so…

It was the Polish who started it.

A few days before the Second World War began, the Polish gifted France and UK with a device that had been designed in 1938 in Poland at their “Cipher Bureau” by mathematician, Marian Rejewski, known as the “cryptologic bomb”. OK, it used valves rather than digital means, but let’s not split hairs, it was the start of a revolution.

Germany’s Army, Air Force and Navy transmitted many thousands of coded messages each day during World War II. The Bombe plotted the daily settings of the German enigma machines and allowed some basic traffic analysis. In May 1940, Bletchley Park’s Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman developed it further to provide a cornucopia of intelligence and it was known as “Ultra” – the system successfully tapped encrypted messages of the German armed forces.

They literally set up a code-breaking factory at Bletchley Park. This Data Analysis in its creation enabled the Allies to understand the position of German Troops during the D Day Landings and save many lives. They were de-coding 2 messages every minute!

Welchman wrote, “Ultra would never have gotten off the ground if we had not learned from the Poles, in the nick of time, the details both of the German military … Enigma machine, and of the operating procedures that were in use.” Thank you Poland.


Later in the war, German forces developed a more sophisticated cipher machine and communication network, nicknamed Tunny. It was to be the forerunner of today’s mobile phone networks, and spanned Europe and North Africa, connecting Hitler and the Army High Command in Berlin to the front-line generals.

Britain retaliated by developing the world’s first large-scale programmable electronic computer, constructed by Thomas Flowers in London and installed at Bletchley in January 1944. By the end of the war, 10 models operated round-the-clock for Tunny breaking. Bletchley Park became the world’s first electronic computing facility.


All that was 70 years ago. We know today that there was certainly an organisational culture of secrecy but it is also written that new recruits were thrown in “at the deep end” and heard conversations taking place that “were on a different level”. It must have been a wonderful place to learn the basics of data analysis and codebreaking – a university of sorts but with round the clock working. Relationships were built and even marriages!

It is said that Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, had a campus-like feel with a youthful atmosphere. I read in the Telegraph that the Hon Sarah Baring was helpless with laughter as she recalled piling another debutante into a laundry basket and pushing her all the way down the corridor. Sounds like fun against a back drop of hard work and anxiety and some say the talent of these teams reduced the length of the war by 2 years. In the adversity of war, Bletchley certainly launched our digital age.

So why the history lesson? It’s time to crack the code for digitisation so that your business can win the competitive advantage in your industry.

Ruth Gawthorpe is the owner of The Change Directors and works with businesses that want to grow through digitisation. Yet Digitisation is really just a buzzword – it takes people to achieve it. Call Ruth for a chat about your plans and how you can win the hearts and minds of your people and push the necessary buttons to get your desired changes in place.

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