Tommy Flowers' legacy: Computers vs. telephones

We catch up with Tommy Flowers’ son, Kenneth, to learn more about his dad

Before telephone exchanges were automated anyone who wanted to make a phone call needed to connect with the operator first. Tommy Flowers worked on how to solve this problem for 10 years before WW2 began - took time out to design the first computer as part of the secret Bletchley Park code breaking effort - then went back and discovered the solution for telephones. We catch up with his son, Kenneth, to learn more about what a different course of history might have meant for computing… and what one quiet, distinguished career might reveal about the modern workplace.

Tommy Flowers was the sort of chap anyone would have wanted to work with. He was talented, hard-working, self-effacing and always gave credit to his team. He also happened to design the first computer, Colossus, and if circumstances had been different might have built on those early efforts to change the course of computing history.

The problem was Colossus was part of the top secret Bletchley Park code breaking efforts, and after the war, the machines and all their blueprints were destroyed. Those individuals that had been drafted in to fill a need just returned to their pre-war work and were not allowed to tell a soul.

“Dad said to me once,” explains his son Kenneth “that when they were working on secret projects they were allowed to tell their wives that they were working on something secret so if they went off without telling them where they were going their wives weren’t suspicious that they were having affairs. Of course, it didn’t stop them from having affairs if they were that way inclined, but I don’t think many of them did because they were too busy working.”

It was a lot of man-hours to develop Colossus - it was built out of necessity - but it is hard not to wonder what would have happened if Tommy Flowers’ incredible energies had been focused on creating computers post-war. “That is interesting and something to speculate on,” agrees his son. “If they’d been given the go ahead and resources it might have produced the world’s first [true] computer [with a programmable memory].”

Alan Turing had the idea for a universal “Turing machine” back in 1936. Yet this was all theoretical and, as Flowers junior explains, it was when Turing saw Colossus working he realised it was possible to build these “big complicated electronic machines that would work”.

“The thing that held Turing up after the war was a lack of expertise in electronics,” he continues. “Turing went to Manchester with [Max] Newman [who had also been at Bletchley Park] and they tried to create a universal machine. They did produce a computer of sorts but it wasn’t very efficient or very good… but perhaps if my dad had been there and been able to put the technical expertise in they might have got much further.”

“Dad never complained about it though,” stresses Flowers. “I don’t think it really occurred to him he’d missed out because he’d only been seconded to Bletchley Park. Then after the war he went back to what he’d been doing beforehand.” Safe to say computing’s loss was telecommunications’ gain.

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Image credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr

Why is the story of Colossus so important?

It is tiny knock-on events that shape the course of history. In fact, coincidentally, Tommy Flowers was at a telecommunications conference in Berlin during the last week in August, 1939 and nearly didn’t get out in time. By fluke, he ended up on the last the last boat train out of Germany before war was declared and they shut the border.

“If he hadn’t got that train he would have been interned in Germany during the war and that would have been quite a consequence, really,” says his son. And in some ways the same is true when it came to building Colossus, “he just happened to be at the right place at the right time”.

“He had that experience before the war researching with switches and valves for the telephone system and was able to adapt that to the war work. He was lucky he had that expertise. He was a very good engineer. He did a great job.”

“You could say Colossus was an example to Turing of what was possible,” he adds. “But when my dad designed the original machine it was for a specific purpose. He didn’t think of it as a computer at the time he thought of it as a processing machine to do a particular job. It was other people that saw the implications of what he’d done.”

Yet this is surely a paradigm for the whole history of computing. Take a pioneering company, like Apple, for example. It took Steve Wozniak to do the back-end work and Steve Jobs to see the potential. Today, the sheer potential in computers is universally understood, every new idea has a myriad of different applications, the main challenge is to make ideas usable. There is just no point having practical skills without visionary theory, or vice versa. It is the pure incidence of chance that brings the two together and makes thing happen.  

The unique chain of events that lead to the creation of Colossus means that its identification as the first computer only came out when Professor Brian Randell, of Newcastle University, stumbled across it and followed it up years later. “I think there is a certain element in the British establishment that wants to make a fuss about Colossus as the first computer in order to dish it to the Americans,” says Flowers. “The Americans always claim ENIAC was the first computer and the British can come in and say we did it first.”

In fact, since the story of Colossus has emerged the implications have been pushed ever further, with a lot of discussion around the impact this side of the code breaking effort had on the overall outcome of the war. “I think people get carried away,” says Flowers.

“Bletchley Park as a whole probably shortened the war by two years and Colossus was part of that. They [Bill Tutte] had broken the code [for the Lorenz machine] but the problem was they couldn’t break the messages fast enough to be of any use because by the time they’d decoded each message it was two or three weeks out of date. What Colossus did was speed up the process.”

“It was a great achievement. A completely new machine designed from scratch, built in nine months and it worked perfectly - that is an amazing engineering feat and I think my father deserves full credit for that. He was a good engineer and a great electronic designer.”

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Why is Tommy Flowers’ story so important?

Tommy Flowers might have been the type of fellow who could turn his prodigious skills and impressive work ethic to any challenge but this is precisely what makes him worthy of attention. He was a clear product of his time and everything about him stands at odds with the bragging, brandishing – shout about how brilliant you are – career culture that exists today.

He was a “very ordinary straightforward family man,” says his son. He “worked long hours, did the garden” there was “nothing eccentric” about him. He tended to live under the motto: “be good at what you do but don’t boast about it”.

“There is nothing much to say about him really. Everything that is interesting is in his work”. He is not like “Turing who is worth looking at outside his work”.

This may be true, but I must admit I’m fascinated by Tommy Flowers – precisely because he wasn’t one of the shouty types who so often emerge at the top of the pile. These are the individuals leaping on every available podium or bandwagon – the ones securing themselves plenty of face time. It is the quieter people who tend to fall by the wayside, which is why Flowers’ story is so important.

Yet even the recognition Tommy Flowers has received has been slightly off kilter. The few simple elements of his biography have been used to suggest a conflict where there is none. Official accounts of his life variously describe Tommy Flowers’ own father as either “bricklayer” (which sounds very working class) or a man who installed “bakery machines” (which has a professional ring). When the truth, of course, is more nuanced: he was both.

Tommy Flowers’ dad started off as a labourer then got a job with a firm of bakery ovens as manager. He was a master bricklayer and “you need special bricklaying skills for ovens.” He was “quite well off” and “upwardly mobile through education” and “encouraged my father to do the same,” explains Kenneth Flowers.

This is not the black and white story of class struggle – working boy made good - that some people have attempted to tell. “I grew up thinking we were professional middle class,” says his son. “We lived in a semi-detached house. In the suburbs of London. Dad wore a suit to go to work in the civil service. He said his London accent, his cockney accent [hindered him] but I never thought he had a cockney accent.”

“He certainly didn’t have a cockney accent like Mary Poppins but he had a London accent which I wouldn’t have been aware of living in London, he spoke proper English.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park were largely unconcerned with the artificial constraints of people’s backgrounds. In fact, on many occasions during the war traditional barriers broke down because there was so much pressure to get work done well – and quickly - thus creating a true meritocracy.

Tommy Flowers’ work proved vital, yet unlike Alan Turing, he is hardly a household name. He has, however, gradually gained recognition, which his son says would have pleased him. “He knew it was good and it is nice to be respected – that is what all scientists and engineers want - the respect of their peers.”

He would have been “embarrassed” by the “fuss about the war” Flowers adds. “He was a very reticent man. Not so much shy or modest just – a bit like Clement Attlee – not modest because he didn’t think he was worth anything, just undemonstrative.”

“I think dad was frustrated that it was all kept secret and he wasn’t able to use it after the war,” concludes Kenneth Flowers. Not because he wanted to pursue a path in computing but because “he was pushing his own system for telephone exchanges and he couldn’t say to people I’ve already done this [Colossus]”.

Tommy Flowers died in 1998 and acknowledgement came too late to help his career but none-the-less it is important that the secrets of this extraordinary man have become known. In fact, today computers and telecommunications are so indelibly linked, maybe with hindsight; it is little wonder that one talented hard-working chap was quietly instrumental in the birth of both of them?