Friday, October 9, 2015

Uncovering a History of Secrets

There's a small estate in the Buckinghamshire countryside where extraordinary things happened. 

The history of Bletchley Park is so intricately complex that I'm just going to give an overview of what happened here:

It started in 1938 when a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School came to a mansion on an abandoned plot of land. These people were government officials, academics and mathematicians who created a team of Codebreakers with a mission to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers.

The most famous cipher system cracked at Bletchley Park was the Enigma, but they also broke lower-level German and Japanese code systems. The ingenuity of Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman to create complex electro-mechanical devices, the Bombe, facilitated the Codebreakers by narrowing down the million, million, million possible Enigma wheel configurations to a manageable number for further hand-testing. It was reported by veterans at Bletchley Park who were interviewed for the audio guide that the work accomplished at the Park may have shortened World War II by two years. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, visited the Park in 1941 to show his support. When resources were needed, the heads of the Codebreakers appealed to Churchill, to which he responded with,"Make sure they have all the want extreme priority and report to me that this has been done." 

What is most amazing about Bletchley Park is the pivotal role women played, many of whom were between 18 and 24. Women worked in all roles at Bletchley Park - intercepting enemy codes, deciphering, translating, and analyzing the codes, couriering information, administrative and clerical work, operating codebreaking machines (such as Bombe and Colossus.) Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) were assigned to operate the Bombe machines. Women across classes worked together and were treated as equals within the Park, recognized and promoted based on their accomplishments and merits. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Center of Space and Time, and History

Greenwich was at one time home to one of the great royal palaces, and currently has a large park that was enclosed by Henry VIII for hunting deer. The royal palace (Palace of Placentia) has quite a history of its own ( 

What is of most important historical significance about Greenwich took place on a hill above where the palace stood in a collection of buildings, the Royal Observatory. Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park in 1675 and appointed John Flamsteed as his first Astronomer Royal. The Observatory was built to improve navigation at sea and 'find the so-much desired longitude of places' – one's exact position east and west – while at sea and out of sight of land, by astronomical means. 

Longitude is the exact position east and west. Without knowing how to measure it, ships couldn't accurately determine where they were. This was a major problem, especially on long ocean journeys when ships were making long voyages across the oceans and didn't have any visual clues for weeks at a time. A major shipwreck forced the issue to be solved and Parliament passed an Act declaring a reward for solving the longitude problem, should certain stipulations be met. It took nearly 60 years for the prize to be claimed. In the end it went not to a famous astronomer, scientist or mathematician, but to a little-known Yorkshire carpenter turned clockmaker, John Harrison, who invented four chronometers. His fourth chronometer, and the winner, changed navigation forever. 

The Royal Observatory is also the source of the Prime Meridian of the world, Longitude 0° 0' 0''. Every place on the Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth – just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.

By international decree, the Prime Meridian is the official starting point for each new day, year and millennium. Prime Meridian is defined by the position of the large 'Transit Circle' telescope in the Observatory's Meridian Observatory. This was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely define Longitude 0º for the world. 

How did the center of the world become centered at Greenwich? Since the late 19th century, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich has served as the co-ordinate base for the calculation of Greenwich Mean Time. Before this, almost every town in the world kept its own local time. There were no national or international conventions to set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what the length of an hour might be. However, with the vast expansion of the railway and communications networks during the 1850s and 1860s, the worldwide need for an international time standard became imperative.

The Greenwich Meridian was chosen to be the Prime Meridian of the World in 1884. Forty-one delegates from 25 nations met in Washington DC for the International Meridian Conference and voted 22:1 for Greenwich as Longitude 0º. The decision was based on the argument that naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º would inconvenience the least number of people. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Art as an Ending

Somerset House has a long history as a London royal palace. It also was a site for art, culture, and science, which continues to today. 

It was commissioned by George III and designed by Sir William Chambers, it was constructed between 1776 and 1801 on the site of the palace by Edward Seymour. Seymour was Edward VI's uncle and self-named Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset since Edward was too young to ascend the throne. As the new Duke and Protector, Seymour wanted a new palace suitable to his new rank. He began building his great mansion on land he already owned between the Thames and the Strand. Various monarchs have used the building and it has had its share of construction, demolition, and restoration by these monarchs and as a result of the Civil War, the plague, and the Great London Fire of 1665. The House fell into such disrepair in the 18th century that George III gave the site to the government for public offices, which found other purposes for the newly rebuilt Somerset House, completed in 1779. It became the center for the Royal Academy, the Government Art School, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries. 

The Royal Academy of Arts had their Exhibition Room in the newly rebuilt Somerset House until 1836, when the Academy moved to the National Gallery in 1836. 

The Royal Society is the oldest scientific society in Britain. They also took up residence at Somerset House in 1781 and stayed until 1857. One of the first scientific discoveries announced at a Society meeting after shortly moving to their new residence was by astronomer William Herschel of a newly discovered planet, Uranus.

These rooms are now the home of the Courtauld Gallery, which has an important collection of old master and impressionist paintings. Works are on display by French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist such as Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and Seurat. I unexpectedly stumbled upon my favorite Mante, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

One of the exciting things about exploring is never knowing what you'll stumble upon. A curiosity about this royal palace and what had happened to it led me to discover not only a treasure trove of historical events that happened at this site but also one of my favorite paintings and some other outstanding works by some of my favorite artists.