Tommy Flowers tribute: The great '1.6 million billion' data race

How Tommy Flowers launched today’s data driven world of technology

This is a contributed piece by Andrew Carr, COO, of the Digital Catapult


At a time when data has become one of the most important business assets, and the issues and practicalities of sharing, securing and unlocking its true value are top of the priority list for most board members, one could be mistaken for thinking our relationship with it had only just begun. However, whether inputted onto a stone, scripture or screen, data in some form has been with humankind since the beginning, what has changed is how we interact with and visualise it.

Whilst there are undoubtedly many great inventors and innovators who were catalysts in driving the relationship between technology and data, there is no one more so than Thomas ‘Tommy’ Flowers. A British engineer, Flowers designed ‘Colossus’, the world's first programmable electronic computer, during World War II to help decode encrypted German messages. The work undertook by Flowers during his time at Bletchley Park is believed to have helped shorten the war by two years. In his memory, a room has been named after him at the Digital Catapult Centre.

Colossus is seen by many as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century, allowing Allied Commanders almost instant access to information detected over the Lorenzo system – a highly sophisticated encoding system that was used by Nazi military leaders to send out secret war plans. Colossus Mark 1 employed 1,800 thermions valves for computations, and by the end of the war, 10 models were working around the clock to break the coded messages.

The successes of Flowers, his colleagues and the Colossus computers cannot be underestimated, cutting short the war and thus saving thousands of lives. But in the process, and certainly not his primary objective at the time, Flowers demonstrated how electronic programmable computers could be used by humans to understand vast amounts of data quickly. The German Lorenzo SZ40 was capable of sending out a secret message in 1.6 ‘million billion’ ways, not something the human mind could calculate. Fast forward to today, the computers have become smaller and faster, but Flowers principle to use technology to derive value from data has grown in prevalence in an era of big data, digitisation and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In fact, whilst it is over 70 years since Flowers’ creation of Colossus, his principle of using technology to overcome a data challenge has not changed. In the early 1940s, it was to understand war plans; today it is to understand how a production line can be more efficient or how hospitals can help save more lives.

Data, and the sharing of data, has become the cornerstone on which everything from smartphones to IoT is built, and is fundamental in driving businesses and the wider economy. So much so, that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes data innovation could create more than $300bn of economic value over the next decade and therefore play a vital role in boosting UK productivity.

As we have moved from Colossus to the cloud, there have of course been significant advances in the capabilities of technology to analyse data over the proceeding 70 years, yet Flowers’ notion of using technology remains the same. What of course is different is what we do this with data. Quite understandably, and as it still is today, the unlocking of data in relation to military plans was of course kept closed and not shared.  Beyond this though, if we are to continue on our journey with data, the need for it to be open and shared is fundamental.

In a very different time, Tommy Flowers and his team epitomised innovative and open thinking with the creation of Colossus. In the process, Flowers rewrote how we analyse data, and his principles remain with us today. As we enter a new era of digital technology and a data boom, we must keep his innovative and open thinking at our core to ensure our fantastic relationship with data continues to thrive and we continue to realise its potential.


More stories on Tommy Flowers:
Planning Tommy Flowers’ Day 2016: 5 reasons to join our crusade…
Tommy Flowers: The Forgotten Father of Computing?
Tommy Flowers’ legacy: Computers vs. telephones
5 Reasons I’m chuffed by the UK’s new Colossus stamp

Related reading:
Bletchley Park: From Code-Breaking to Kids Coding
Forgotten tech father: Bill Tutte vs. Alan Turing?
This month in tech history: June – Alan Turing