Remembering Colossus, The World’S Stimulate Programmable Electronic Computer

It’s no hole-and-corner nosotros convey a special fondness for Bletchley Park. The pioneering function carried out in that place didn’t merely crevice codes—it set the foundations for the estimator age.

Today, we’d similar to pay homage to a lesser-known contributor—Tommy Flowers. Bletchley Park’s breakthroughs were the production of theoretical mathematical brilliance combined alongside dazzling feats of engineering—none to a greater extent than in addition to then than Flowers’ creation of Colossus, the world’s commencement programmable, electronic computer.

Photo of physician Thomas “Tommy” Flowers. Reproduced alongside form permission of the Flowers family

By 1942 the hardest draw of piece of employment facing Bletchley Park’s wartime codebreakers was deciphering messages encrypted past times Lorenz, used past times Deutschland for their close top-secret communications. Initially Lorenz messages were broken past times hand, using ingenious but time-consuming techniques. To speed things up, it was decided to create a machine to automate parts of the decoding process. This part-mechanical, part-electronic device was called Heath Robinson, but although it helped, it was unreliable in addition to soundless also slow.

Tommy Flowers was an adept inward the utilisation of relays in addition to thermionic valves for switching, cheers to his question developing telephone systems. Initially, he was summoned to Bletchley Park to aid ameliorate Heath Robinson, but his concerns alongside its pattern were in addition to then groovy he came upwards alongside an exclusively novel solution—an electronic machine, afterwards christened Colossus.

When Flowers proposed the persuasion for Colossus inward Feb 1943, Bletchley Park management feared that, alongside some 1,600 thermionic valves, it would endure unreliable. Drawing on his pre-war research, Flowers was eventually able to persuade them otherwise, alongside proof that valves were reliable provided the machine they were used inward was never turned off. Despite this, however, Bletchley Park’s experts were soundless skeptical that a novel machine could endure set upwards rapidly plenty in addition to declined to pursue it further.

Fortunately Flowers was undeterred, in addition to convinced the U.K.’s Post Office question centre at Dollis Hill inward London to approve the projection instead. Working some the clock, in addition to partially funding it out of his ain pocket, Flowers in addition to his squad completed a image Colossus inward merely 10 months.

Photo of the rebuilt Colossus which you lot tin dismiss catch at The National Museum of Computing inward the U.K. 
 Reproduced alongside form permission of The National Museum of Computing.

The commencement Colossus came into functioning at Bletchley Park inward Jan 1944. It exceeded all expectations in addition to was able to derive many of the Lorenz settings for each message inside a few hours, compared to weeks previously. This was followed inward June 1944 past times a 2,400-valve Mark 2 version which was fifty-fifty to a greater extent than powerful, in addition to which provided vital data to assist the D-Day landings. By the terminate of the nation of war in that place were 10 Colossus computers at Bletchley Park working 24/7.

Once nation of war was over, all call of Colossus was forbidden past times the Official Secrets Act. Eight of the machines were dismantled, piece the remaining 2 were sent to London where they purportedly were used for intelligence purposes until 1960. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Colossus could cause down to claim its rightful crown at the forefront of computing history.

Tommy Flowers passed away inward 1998, but nosotros were privileged latterly to choose grip of upwards alongside some on his squad who helped create in addition to hold Colossus.



This calendar week heralds the opening of a new gallery dedicated to Colossus at the U.K.’s National Museum of Computing, based at Bletchley Park. The rebuilt Colossus is on show, in addition to over the coming weeks it volition endure joined past times interactive exhibits in addition to displays. Bletchley Park is less than an sixty minutes from Central London, in addition to makes a plumbing equipment pilgrimage for anyone interested inward computing.



(Cross-posted on the European Public Policy Blog)
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