Michael Loewe, the eminent Cambridge historian of China, came to speak at the Institute for Advanced Study and at Princeton University on 19–20 November of this year. A few of the sinologists from the School of Historical Studies at the IAS dined with him after his first talk. I had not realized that Loewe had once been at Bletchley Park and that his initiation into the languages of East Asia came in a rudimentary course in Japanese, hurriedly thrown together for Bletchley workers in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. It began in February, 1942.
Living as I now do in the oddly-configured space between sinology and computer science, the conversation was a particular delight for me. Bletchley Park is one of the landmarks in the evolution of computer science before the invention of the transistor. And while I am not prone to the worship of people or things, it was a pleasure to have the company of this hale 91-year old scholar for an evening and hear him reminisce in his own voice about cryptography seventy years ago.
Loewe told us a number of stories of Bletchley, and I won’t repeat them here as I see they are essentially all documented in his seven-page paper “Japanese Naval Codes” in the Hinsley and Stripp Codebreakers book. I had not read this book before, and would like to recommend it here. It is thickly stocked with personal memoirs of the Bletchley Park work by thirty different participants, and should satisfy any reader’s hunger for historical and technical detail.
While Bletchley is most famous for the reconstruction-at-a-distance of the settings of the Enigma machine, associated in memory with the stellar name of Alan Turing, I was more impressed by the descriptions of the collaborative nature of all the cryptographic work and of the study of Tunny and Sturgeon — code names for the two other German cryptographic machines. And still more striking was to realize how much of the work at Bletchley was of no Computer-Science interest at all. It was exceedingly dreary clerical labor, performed manually at all hours of the day, because the vast majority of Axis cryptographic tools consisted of simple ciphers and codes, applied by hand to plaintext and then decoded by hand. If there is any Computer-Science lesson in all this drudgery, it is only that automation initially enabled ciphers to resist decryption more robustly and to introduce greater variability-with-reproducibility to the encryption process; that robustness and reproducibility are what drove Turing and the others to their mathematical advances. As for Japanese, Loewe and the other Bletchley writers make clear how minor a subject it was in English wartime cryptography. All the work they did on it was clerical in nature and very low-level.
I was charmed by Loewe’s accent. I transcribed a few distinctive expressions:
- [mai-θə-ˈlɒ-dʒɪ-kl̩]: mythological
- [ˈju-njukʰ]: eunuch
- [ˈɛm-pʰɹʌ]: emperor
- [ˈlai-bɹiː]: library
- full trust of his loyalty: I would use “in” rather than “of” here.
- a forward protagonist
The first two of these were completely new to me and surprising. He also pronounced the second half of Milton Keynes, the major town near Bletchley Park (now the borough containing it), as [kʰeinz]. He gave the name of the course of study in (Western) Classics that he had been enrolled in at Cambridge before Bletchley as “Classical Mods” — short for Classical Moderations, a name that remains in use today. The expression “moderations” apparently has to do with the fact that this curriculum features examination by disputation, conducted by faculty “moderators”. Good training for sinology and cryptography, even if of the dreary clerical variety.
Loewe’s surname is pronounced ['lou-wiː].
 F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp, eds., Codebreakers (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1994 [paperback]), pp. 257–63. This is quite a different work from David Kahn’s Codebreakers, a more general history of cryptography.