In 2003, Dr. Sue Black encountered a sight that made her ashamed to be British. She was visiting Bletchley Park, the home of 10,000 men and women who worked to decode German messages during World War II. Although the work done at this historic location is estimated to have saved 22 million lives and is often referred to as the birthplace of coding, she was shocked to find it in a dilapidated condition. The roof of the distinguished mansion house was leaking. Some of the iconic huts that sheltered the codebreakers appeared to be on the brink of collapse.
Prior to her first visit, Dr. Black knew little about what happened at Bletchley Park and who had worked there. “Because everything was kept secret—those 10,000 people didn’t say a word to anybody—it was kind of written out of our history,” said Black. “It was a victim of its own success.”
Dr. Black was also intrigued by the more than 5,000 women who had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. As one of very few women in her first computer science classes and now as a Senior Research Associate at University College London, she has become an influential advocate for women in tech. After leaving school at age 16, Black started taking math classes again—10 years later as a single mother of 3. After graduating from South Bank University, she continued on to receive a PhD in engineering from the same institution.
In conversation with CHM CEO John Hollar on December 7, Dr. Black shared how she launched a three-year campaign to save the historic landmark, highlighted in her bestselling book Saving Bletchley Park. After her initial visit in 2003, Black remained engaged with the park and its history, organizing a video project called Women of Station X to honor the female veterans of Bletchley. At a reunion of the women who participated in the project in 2008, Black learned that the park had no external funding and was at risk of permanent closure.
Dr. Black quickly jumped into action. She sent a formal petition to computer science professors and department directors at universities throughout the UK. To her surprise and delight, many of them responded and signed it in a matter of days, including faculty at Cambridge and Oxford. This compelled her to reach out to the press, first by writing a letter to The Times and then by contacting all the journalists she knew. After being interviewed by BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan Jones, the BBC World Service and BBC News 24, she knew the campaign had officially taken off. “Suddenly, I was catapulted onto almost the world stage,” Black said. “I had friends in the US saying, ‘I just saw you on TV, what’s going on?’”
Dr. Black’s efforts gained new momentum when she considered the potential of social media to raise awareness of Bletchley Park and its dilemma. In addition to launching a blog to document her efforts, she also identified Twitter as an effective way to spread the word, even in the early days of the platform. After downloading the mobile app at a conference and viewing conversations the attendees were having, she realized she could see who was talking about Bletchley Park. “Things started happening in my brain,” said Black. “I just started thinking this is a way to connect with people that we haven’t had before.”
Turning to Twitter also allowed Dr. Black to enlist celebrities and social media stars in the campaign. She contacted British comedian Stephen Fry on a whim after seeing one of his tweets about being stuck in an elevator go viral. He shared a link to her blog the next day, causing daily visits to her site to jump from 50 to 8,000.
Fueled by public enthusiasm for the campaign, The Bletchley Park Trust applied for funding in 2011 and received more than 4 million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The site now receives 250,000 visitors per year and will be home to the UK’s first national college of cybersecurity in September 2018.
Dr. Black still dedicates her time to promoting the efforts of women in tech. After the park was saved, Sue launched #techmums, an education program focused on providing moms with a variety of technical skills. Through this initiative, moms learn basic IT skills, programming, app design, and more.
Watch the Full Conversation
“The Preservation Game: Saving Bletchley Park Author Sue Black in Conversation with Museum CEO John Hollar,” December 7, 2016.
Produced by CHM Live at the Computer History Museum.
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