Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley

darkThe first of my code-breaking stories has just come out, in the latest issue of The Dark Magazine. I’ve always been interested in the science of WW2 – especially Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project – and my fascination with the first of these has ended up in story. I’m planning a series of them – am in the middle of writing stories two and three now – a loosely connected collection with Bletchley Park at the hub.

Given that I’m a spec fic writer, history and the history of science are colliding with magical realism and other brands of fantasy. In “Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley“, for example, Flowers (who created the Colossus – the first electronic computer – for the purpose of code-breaking) has the extra ability of being able to speak to glass. Each of the Colossi had hundreds, if not thousands, of glass vacuum tubes or thermionic valves, so they certainly would never have run quiet.

“I think it’s whistling at me,” one of the Wrens says to him, giggling. Her hair is damp, plastered to the nape of her neck in little curls, her uniform blouse clinging in the heat. She smells faintly of French chalk and warm glue, the sticky mix invented to loop the paper strips together with prayers and clamping. Behind her, the Colossus rattles and whirs, message tapes rolling at high speed, circling round the bedstead frame.

The valves are conspicuously silent. Tommy doesn’t trust them an inch. “Maybe it’s one of the officers,” he says, not very hopefully.

“I wouldn’t put it past them,” she says, as if someone hadn’t suggested that the Wrens do their work topless, all the better to cope with the vacuum tubes, blazing like a thousand lights and giving off the heat of a hundred electric fires. “But unless that duty officer out there has started whistling in fifths, then I wouldn’t bet money on it.”

There is nothing to do but apologise, and trust that the valves can be intimidated by a savage look. It is a trust that is not repaid. They flicker and giggle for praise, a squeaky carillon just at the edge of hearing, and their bulbous ends illuminate with little sparks of See? See? as the code rolls round.

Flowers had a lot to put up with.

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