Creator of Colossus – unsung genius

Imagine you create an extraordinarily clever and effective machine that saves countless thousands of lives and rescues entire countries from annihalation, but only a handful of people must know about it, documentation is destroyed, and you go to your grave with your work completely unknown and unrecognised among the general public. This is what happened to Tommy Flowers, creator of Colossus, the first programmable electronic computer, which is 70 years old today. Tommy himself is long gone.

Turing, Churchill…and Flowers

Tommy Flowers is one of those names that should be up there with Alan Turing and Winston Churchill for the contribution they made to the security of this country and the Allies’ ultimate defeat of the Nazis. During WWII necessity was a fecund mother of invention – first the Poles’ bombas, then their successor the Turing bombe (with a good bit of help from Harold ‘Doc’ Keene), leading to Flowers’ work with Frank Morell on Heath Robinson, the first machine set to work to break the Lorenz code. Colossus and its swift successor Colossuss mk II were a vast improvement on the manual Heath Robinson – named for its somewhat comedic complexity. But Colossus wouldn’t have been possible without the intellect of Bill Tutte, who succeeded in working out how the Lorenz machine worked without ever having seen it. Bill’s is another name in a roll-call of British genius in engineering and technology that was largely unrecognised in their own lifetime.

Clear Communications

All these machines allowed British intelligence a vital insight into Nazi movements and planning, as well as demonstrating that they had swallowed British misinformation campaigns such as Operation Mincemeat and the diversion that allowed the D-Day landings to take place. Communications were so clear that on occasions the Germans had to ask for a communication to be resent, but at Bletchley Park they’d received it perfectly first time and knew the content before its intended recipient.

National Museum of Computing

Thank goodness some far-sighted souls ignored the order to destroy all information and hung on to a few photographs and drawings. Tony Sale and his team at the National Museum of Computing unveiled a recreated Colossues in 1997. For the full story on Colossus read this Bit-Tech article celebrating 70 years since Colossus was activated.

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