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Colossus Developed by a Secret English Team, c. 1940 - c. 1945

Colossus Developed by a Secret English Team, c. 1940 - c. 1945

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Published by: Kevin Cabano on Apr 01, 2010
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Colossus Developed by a Secret English Team, c. 1940-c. 1945Table of Contents:
Further Readings 
 A secret team of specialists developed Colossus, the first all-electronic calculating device, inresponse to the need to decipher German military codes during 
World 
 
War 
 
 II 
 
P
rincipal
P
ersonages
 Thomas H. Flowers, the electronics expert who led the team that designed and built the Colossusand who was a major proponent for the use of vacuum tubes in computersMax H. A. Newman (1897- ), a gifted mathematician and lecturer who was responsible for formulating the requirements for ColossusAlan Turing (1912-1954), a brilliant mathematician who contributed to the codebreakingcomputers that were the forerunners of ColossusC. E. Wynn-Williams, a member of the Telecommunications Research Establishment whoworked on the electronic components of Colossus
Summary of Event
 In 1939, during
World
 
War
 
II
, a team of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers met atBletchley Park, outside London to discuss the development of machines that would break thesecret code used in Nazi military communications. The Germans were using a machine called"Enigma" to communicate in code between headquarters and field units. The Enigma used asubstitution code whereby a set of letters were substituted for the ones that normally made up thewords. This in itself was not new; however, the Enigma enciphered (coded) only one letter andthen shifted to a new position so that each letter of every word had a different key. The sendersand receivers of the codes knew which rotor was being used for the substitution. The machine-made code used several rotors and so had vast substitution possibilities, which made the codeextremely difficult to decode. The Enigma was portable, easy-to-use, and seemingly generatedunbreakable codes. Polish scientists, however, had had been able to examine a German Enigmaand were able to break the codes from 1928 to 1938 by using electromechanical codebreakingmachines called "bombas." In 1938, the Germans made the Enigma more complicated, and thePolish were no longer able to break the codes. In 1939, the Polish machines and codebreakingknowledge passed to the British.Alan Mathison Turing was one of the mathematicians gathered at Bletchley Park to work oncodebreaking machines. Turing was one of the first people to conceive of the universality of 
 
digital computers. He first mentioned the "Turing machine" in 1936 in an article published in"Proceedings," a publication of the London Mathematical Society. The Turing machine is ahypothetical device for solving any problem dependent on mathematical computation and is notrestricted to only one task, hence, the universality feature. Turing's original and innovativecontributions made him essential to the team working on codebreaking machines. Turingsuggested an improvement to the Bletchley codebreaking machine, the "Bombe," which had been modeled on the Polish "bomba." This improvement increased the computing power of themachine. The Bombe was an electromechanical relay machine that was similar to the Enigma.The Bombe did not decode messages itself, but worked out the position of the Enigma rotors.Once the position of the Enigma rotors was known, the message could be decoded by specialists.The codebreaking machines replaced the tedious method of decoding by hand, which in additionto being slow, was ineffective in dealing with very complicated encryptions that were changeddaily.The Bombe was very useful until 1942, when the Germans started using a more sophisticatedcipher machine known as the "Fish." The Fish used a binary code (a system of numbers in basetwo, in which the only numerals are 0 and 1). Max H. A. Newman, who was in charge of onesubunit at Bletchley Park, believed that an automated device could be designed to break thecodes produced by the Fish. Thomas H. Flowers, who was in charge of a switching group at thePost Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, had been approached to build a special purposeelectromechanical device for Bletchley Park in 1941. The device was not useful, and Flowerswas assigned to other problems. He worked closely with Turing, Newman, and C. E. Wynn-Williams of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) to develop a machine to break the Fish codes. The Dollis Hill team worked on the tape driving and reading problems, andWynn-Williams' team at TRE worked on electronic counters and the necessary circuitry. Their efforts produced the Heath Robinson, which could read two thousand characters per second. TheHeath Robinson used vacuum tubes, an uncommon component in the early 1940's. The vacuumtubes performed more reliably and rapidly than the relays that had been used for counters. HeathRobinson and the companion machines proved that high-speed electronic devices couldsuccessfully do cryptoanalytic work (solve decoding problems). Entirely automatic in operationonce started, the Heath Robinson was put together at Bletchley Park in the spring of 1943. TheHeath Robinson machine had a small total output because of problems with reliability and, whenthe machine overheated, it was known to seize up and catch fire. The team working on the problems finally solved them and was able to use the machine in codebreaking. The HeathRobinson was inadequate for the codebreaking needs shortly after it was put into use, so work  began on a bigger, faster, and more powerful machine: the Colossus.Flowers led the team that designed and built the Colossus in eleven months at Dollis Hill. Thefirst Colossus (Mark I) was a bigger, faster version of the Heath Robinson and read about fivethousand characters per second. Colossus had approximately 1,500 vacuum tubes, which wasmore than any tried elsewhere at the time. Although Turing and Wynn-Williams were not
 
directly involved with the design of the Colossus, their previous work on the Heath Robinsonwas crucial, since the first Colossus was based on the Heath Robinson.Colossus was operational at Bletchley Park in December, 1943, and Flowers made arrangementsfor the manufacture of the time-consuming components in case other machines were required.The request for additional machines came in March, 1944. The second Colossus, the Mark 
II
,was extensively redesigned and was able to read twenty-five thousand characters per second because it was capable of parallel operations (it carried out several different operations at once,instead of one at a time) and, in addition, it had a short-term memory. The Mark 
II
was inoperation on June 1, 1944. Several more machines were made, each with further modifications,for a total of ten. The Colossus machines were special-purpose, program-controlled electronicdigital computers, the only known electronic programmable computer in existence in 1944. Theuse of electronics allowed for a tremendous increase in the internal speed of the machine.After 
World
 
War
 
II
ended in 1945, the Bletchley team disbanded. The fates of the Colossus,Heath Robinson, and Bombe machines were not known for certain, since the British governmentconsidered the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park a state secret. Approximately ten thousandmen and women who worked there were sworn to secrecy and worked under the "need to know"rule. (A person was told only the information needed to complete an assigned task.) Thecommitment to secrecy was so effective that no one outside the project knew about thecodebreaking work at Bletchley Park for more than thirty years after 
World
 
War
 
II
ended. TheBritish government officially revealed some information on the work and the people involved in1975, but the rest of the information is still considered a state secret.
Impact of Event
 The full impact of the development of the Colossus is difficult to assess accurately because allthe information about the project has not been revealed. The Colossus machines gave Britain the best codebreakers during
World
 
War
 
II
and provided information that was crucial for the Alliedvictory. The information decoded by Colossus, the actual messages, and their influence onmilitary decisions still remains classified.The later work of several of the people involved with the Bletchley Park projects was importantin British computer development after the
war
. Newman's and Turing's postwar careers wereclosely involved with emerging computer advances. Newman went to Manchester Universityshortly after the
war
. He was interested in the impact of computers on mathematics and receiveda grant from the Royal Society in 1946 to establish a calculating machine laboratory atManchester. He was also involved with postwar computer growth in Britain. Several other members of the Bletchley Park team joined Newman at Manchester, including Turing in 1948.Before going to Manchester University, however, Turing joined Britain's National PhysicalLaboratory (NPL). At NPL, Turing worked on an advanced computer known as the Pilot

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