February 24, 2021

Bletchley Park Code Breakers in “Sundays at the Sarnoff”

UNSUNG HEROINES: The code breakers and wireless operators at Britain’s Bletchley Park during World War II included thousands of women, whose expert knowledge helped end the war. They are the focus of a virtual talk this Sunday.

By Anne Levin

Due in part to the 2014 film The Imitation Game, the story of British mathematician Alan Turing and his work cracking the Enigma code is familiar to many. Less well known, though portrayed in a 2012 television series The Bletchley Circle, is the effort put forth by thousands of women who worked on this secret mission at Bletchley Park, a stately home in Britain, during World War II.

Joseph Jesson will bring their stories to light this Sunday, February 28 during a 1:30 p.m. Zoom talk, “Unsung WWII Code Breakers and Y-Operator Heroines of Bletchley Park.” Part of the “Sundays at the Sarnoff” series presented by The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), where Jesson is an adjunct professor of electronic and computer engineering, the program will also focus on his research into the RCA AR88 World War II interception receivers. The interception of German encrypted wireless communication allowed Bletchley Park to process these messages into plain text. The RCA AR88 was designed at the company’s headquarters in Camden. “Churchill called it his ‘secret jewel’ in the war against the Nazis,” Jesson said. “The technology was that valuable.”

A few years ago, Jesson did some research about RCA’s development of the technology. “I followed the story from the design of the receiver and its use in Bletchley Park, and it turns out there are a lot of interesting things that are pretty stunning,” he said. “Out of 10,000 to 12,000 people working there, 8,000 were women. This turned into a really cool story. I realized what they were doing, and what their different roles were inside and outside of Bletchley Park to intercept worldwide Nazi communication.”

Turing developed the first computer in the world especially for code-cracking. “He was the so-called hero, which of course he is,” Jesson said. “But he couldn’t have pulled it off without two of his closest experts.” One of the experts was Gordon Welchman. “When Turing’s computers didn’t work, he’d go to him,” Jesson said. The other was Joan Clarke, to whom Turing was briefly engaged. “In fact, she was an equal code-cracker to him. These were the two experts he went to see and get his answers.”

Code-breaking at Bletchley
Park first took place in 1938. According to the website bletchleypark.org.uk, “On 18 September 1938, a small group of people moved into the mansion under the cover story that they were a shooting party. They had an air of friends enjoying a relaxed weekend together at a country house. They even brought with them one of the best chefs from the Savoy Hotel to cook their food. Behind the cover were members of MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS), a secret team including a number of scholars and academics turned codebreakers. As tensions in Europe peaked, Admiral Sinclair, director of GC & CS and SIS, had activated their War Station: Bletchley Park. The group’s job was to set up and run intelligence activity from Bletchley Park.”

Jesson views the stories of Bletchley Park as motivational. “I’m filling in the blanks of all of these unsung heroes,” he said. “It wouldn’t have worked without them. They were not only encrypting messaging, but they were in Morse code. They had to solve all these problems. A lot of the women were ham radio operators. They were the first pick on the list. They were looking for pure talent, and people who were smart. They started with people who knew Morse code, and then set up schools quickly. How they got these operators up to speed is a part of my story that hasn’t been much reported.”

Jesson is currently president and chief technology officer of RFSigint Group, a wireless and patent consulting company in Hamilton Square. He has worked in engineering and technology management at Motorola, CNA, Oak, and Amoco/BP in Chicago, and is a co-founder of Asset Intelligence, a General Electric corporation. He was awarded the General Electric Edison Prize in 2007. In addition to his teaching duties at TCNJ, Jesson is Princeton Life Chair of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). He has been awarded more than 15 patents. He has volunteered his considerable skills to help with communications during extreme weather and other emergency situations, and he hopes to pass on the value of knowing these technologies at the Zoom event.

“There’s a message there, that this is a powerful skill for young people to learn,” he said. “You can get a license and do this yourself. The other takeaway is just the idea that there are quite a few positions for women in technology. Bletchley is a great story that shows the power of what you can accomplish. Don’t let anybody put you down, and learn all you can learn, even under a trying time.”

Visit davidsarnoff.tcnj.edu for registration information.