Giving Back to the Birthplace of the Computer

By Mike Schroepfer, Chief Technology Officer

The modern world has been shaped by what happened inside an English country house more than eight decades ago. It’s no exaggeration to say that at Bletchley Park, the era of the computer was born. 

By figuring out how to crack the Nazis’ secret communications, the almost 10,000 people who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II — 75% of them women — changed the course of the war and saved millions of lives. They did it by building the world’s first programmable digital computer and laying the foundations of modern computer science. Ideas developed at Bletchley Park remain at the heart of cutting-edge research in fields like artificial intelligence, online security and cryptography today, more than 80 years after the first codebreakers set up shop there. 

A VE Day celebration at Bletchley Park in 1945
A VE Day celebration at Bletchley Park, 1945 (Courtesy Bletchley Park Trust)

Today Bletchley Park is one of the UK’s national treasures, open to people from across the world who want to witness the place where so much of modern computer science was born. But like too many of our favorite places, it has been hit hard by a drop in visitors and revenue this year, pushing it toward difficult decisions about its future. Facebook is honored to be able to provide £1 million of support to help keep Bletchley Park open to the world.

There are a few reasons why we feel so lucky to be involved in this. Firstly, Facebook simply would not exist today if not for Bletchley Park. The work of its most brilliant scientist, Alan Turing, still inspires our tens of thousands of engineers and research scientists today, and is foundational to the entire field of computing, which has and will continue to shape the lives of billions of people.

A mural of Alan Turing made out of dominoes at Facebook’s headquarters
A mural of Alan Turing made out of dominoes at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California

Secondly, the UK is like a second home for us. It’s where more than 3,000 Facebook employees — half of them in engineering and technology roles — work on building the future each day. It’s impossible to separate the legacy of Bletchley Park from the UK’s ecosystem of scientific excellence that Facebook is fortunate to be part of. Just one example of this is Facebook research scientist and UCL professor Peter O’Hearn, who has developed new theories about program correctness and incorrectness that build on foundations laid by Turing way back in 1949. Those theories were applied during the development of Infer, an open source tool used to improve millions of lines of code at Facebook. 

Finally, as a company that benefits endlessly from the diversity of our staff and the billions who use our services, the history of Bletchley Park is one we want the whole world to know about. From the long-overlooked role played by the thousands of brilliant women who made the operation a success, to the long-overdue reckoning with the persecution of Alan Turing over his sexuality, Bletchley Park is yet another example of how the story of technology is also the story of the society that creates it. We hope that by helping keep Bletchley Park open, more people can learn the story of the diverse group of people that founded modern computing.

Read more from Mike Schroepfer in our CTO Notebook.

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