Tommy Flowers: The Forgotten Father of Computing? Credit: Image credit: BT via Flickr
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Tommy Flowers: The Forgotten Father of Computing?

Imagine spending years of your life working on a cutting-edge new invention for the government - which incidentally you have to part-pay-for out of your own pocket - only to be told to smash it to pieces and burn all evidence. This is exactly what happened to Tommy Flowers and even now, nearly 70 years later, his first computer, Colossus, is still far more well-known than he is. 

A dapper man [YouTube] walks down an institutional corridor, turns right into a room, flicks on the light switch and shuts the door: “This was our Battersea Bridge Laboratory,” he says, making his way into the large grey and white space.

“And [this is] where we assembled the first Colossus…”

This is Tommy Flowers, father of computing, and under-celebrated hero of World War II code-breaking. In recent years the fame of Colossus has grown exponentially - a quick Amazon search reveals numerous books on the subject. Yet far less is generally known about Flowers himself, the man behind the idea, who put both his back and his cash into the project.

Unlike Turing, Flowers was happily married and lived to the ripe old age of 92. And while his life remained unencumbered by scandal it has, even now, lacked deserved recognition. “The great extent of public interest now in Turing is in part due to the drama and controversies about his life, his treatment after the war and his tragic death,” an expert, who would prefer to remain anonymous, told IDG Connect.

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Comments

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Dave Howe on November 21 2014

Indeed so. The Lorenz machine was used to encrypt teletype (the baudot code) and was used at a much higher level than enigma - enigma was a field machine, used to convey orders from commanders to the forces/vessels being managed, and was largely tactical. Lorenz messages were typically from such commanders back to berlin, and were strategic, covering long term plans and sweeping orders. Much of what Tommy did was still applicable/useful to GCHQ after the war, and was considered above top secret, hence the fact Tommy was never acknowledged during his lifetime (which is a great shame)

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Ian Dedic on November 24 2014

My father-in-law (Bill Chandler) was one of the lead engineers working with Tom who actually built and maintained Colossus. He got the first Colossus II working just before D-day to confirm that the Germans had fallen for the fake invasion near Calais, but only by working all night -- when water from a leak started running across the floor, he just put his wellies on. We never found out about any of this until shortly before he died, all my wife knew was that he'd worked for the Post Office and had some books on cryptography on his bookshelf -- and that occasionally an old friend called Tom came round for a natter. Incidentally, Tom shared out his £1000 prize among the team because he reckoned they all deserved it.

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Oscar schrover on December 26 2015

It is interesting to map social data and to seek out the relevance between known and unknown collaborators at Cheltenham-projects and their social class, their education and social networks and the possible relevance in public matters and public esteem after 1945. In my humble opninion there seems to be a correlation between speedy public recognition and the social container or class of people like Tommy Flowers and Will Tutte, who came from a working class background. Turing, apart from his genius and research, belonged to a recognizable and socially easily distinguishable upper class. The Lorenzo-machine principle was, by the way, still being used in 1978 when I was an office-clerk at a Dutch Army Barracks. It was the pre-computer PC-age, with paper tape and with green classified electronic boxes.

no-images

Gbenga Odukale on January 04 2018

As the hypes slow down, the realities of good efforts of the past start to glitter. And henceforth, the imagery of these true pioneers start to become clear and well defined.

no-images

Dave Howe on November 21 2014

Indeed so. The Lorenz machine was used to encrypt teletype (the baudot code) and was used at a much higher level than enigma - enigma was a field machine, used to convey orders from commanders to the forces/vessels being managed, and was largely tactical. Lorenz messages were typically from such commanders back to berlin, and were strategic, covering long term plans and sweeping orders. Much of what Tommy did was still applicable/useful to GCHQ after the war, and was considered above top secret, hence the fact Tommy was never acknowledged during his lifetime (which is a great shame)

no-images

Ian Dedic on November 24 2014

My father-in-law (Bill Chandler) was one of the lead engineers working with Tom who actually built and maintained Colossus. He got the first Colossus II working just before D-day to confirm that the Germans had fallen for the fake invasion near Calais, but only by working all night -- when water from a leak started running across the floor, he just put his wellies on. We never found out about any of this until shortly before he died, all my wife knew was that he'd worked for the Post Office and had some books on cryptography on his bookshelf -- and that occasionally an old friend called Tom came round for a natter. Incidentally, Tom shared out his £1000 prize among the team because he reckoned they all deserved it.

no-images

Oscar schrover on December 26 2015

It is interesting to map social data and to seek out the relevance between known and unknown collaborators at Cheltenham-projects and their social class, their education and social networks and the possible relevance in public matters and public esteem after 1945. In my humble opninion there seems to be a correlation between speedy public recognition and the social container or class of people like Tommy Flowers and Will Tutte, who came from a working class background. Turing, apart from his genius and research, belonged to a recognizable and socially easily distinguishable upper class. The Lorenzo-machine principle was, by the way, still being used in 1978 when I was an office-clerk at a Dutch Army Barracks. It was the pre-computer PC-age, with paper tape and with green classified electronic boxes.

no-images

Gbenga Odukale on January 04 2018

As the hypes slow down, the realities of good efforts of the past start to glitter. And henceforth, the imagery of these true pioneers start to become clear and well defined.

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