Bletchley plugs in tech to scan WW2 archive

Bletchley plugs in tech to scan WW2 archive

Summary: Bletchley Park is getting set to begin digitising its huge archive of World War Two documents, so they can be posted online for researchers and the public to see.The wartime code-breaking centre holds thousands upon thousands of intercepted transmissions, index cards, maps and other documents, many of which have not been touched in years.

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Bletchley Park is getting set to begin digitising its huge archive of World War Two documents, so they can be posted online for researchers and the public to see.

The wartime code-breaking centre holds thousands upon thousands of intercepted transmissions, index cards, maps and other documents, many of which have not been touched in years. In June, the Bletchley Park Trust unveiled its plan to start scanning the material to create an online, quickly searchable database. Now the start of the work is "imminent", according to Simon Greenish, the Trust's chief executive.

"The hardware's there, the software's there, the volunteers are there," Greenish said on Friday at an event held by HP, which is providing technology for the project. He added that money is coming in for the effort, with a funding announcement expected next week.

Work on the project is expected to take several years. Bletchley Park has "boxes and boxes and boxes" of items — at the height of the war, the centre's 10,000 staff read 6,000 messages a day — and the age of these documents means they are fragile and need careful handling, according to Greenish.

"It's very low-grade, delicate material," he said. "Volume is another challenge."

Among the documents are German messages that gave Britain a "stupendous advantage", he added. For example, a yellowing slip of paper holds an intercept showing the Allies had fooled their adversary over the D-Day invasion; Hitler believed the landings would happen in Calais rather than Normandy and kept his defences there.

The items also show the human side of the conflict, for example via communiques sent by agents such as 'Garbo' — Joan Pujol Garcia — and 'Agent Zigzag' — Eddie Chapman. In December 1942, Chapman sent a message to his handlers to reassure them he was okay, even though his previous communique had omitted a secret letter sequence. He wrote: 'FFFFF. Sorry drunk over Xmas. Forgot FFFFF in last message. FRITZ. Happy Xmas.'

"These are not just valuable documents, they are telling the story of how Britain survived," Greenish said.

As the words on the papers are often too small or faint to read easily, they are less straightforward to scan and digitise, he noted. In addition, a single document may combine typing, handwriting, ink and coloured pencil.

The plan is to use a optical character recognition (OCR) system provided by HP to decipher these, alongside a number of scanners and MFPs loaded with Kofax software. HP's involvement with the archive project is partly commercial and partly a donation, according to a spokesman for the company.

Eventually, the Bletchley Park volunteers will do 3D scanning, the spokesman added. Next year, HP plans to release its TopShot Laserjet Pro, which scans in 3D and prints on paper in 2D. The Trust would be able to digitise fragile books without breaking their spines using the scanner, according to the company.

The Trust hopes to be able to generate income from the online archive, Greenish said, but did not say how.

Topic: Tech Industry

Karen Friar

About Karen Friar

Karen Friar is news editor for ZDNet in the UK, based in London. She started out in film journalism in San Francisco, before making the switch to tech coverage at ZDNet.com. Next came a move to CNET News.com, where she looked after west coast coverage of business technology, and finally a return to her homeland with ZDNet UK.

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