Forgotten tech father: Bill Tutte vs. Alan Turing?
Technology Planning and Analysis

Forgotten tech father: Bill Tutte vs. Alan Turing?

Contrary to popular opinion, Alan Turing was not the only brilliant mathematical code-breaker at Bletchley Park during World War Two. He was also not the only one who was instrumental in the birth of computing.

Turing is famous for theorising the first computer, cracking the Enigma code… and of course, his untimely death and cruel mistreatment for homosexuality.  Bill Tutte, on the other hand, had an ordinary private life… and is hardly known at all for cracking the more sophisticated Lorenz code, which encrypted missives from Hitler himself and boasted a formula so complex that the first computer, Colossus, needed to be built to decipher individual messages.

“We came across this huge apparent conspiracy to give Alan Turing the lion share of recognition for the work that went on at Bletchley Park,” Richard Fletcher, Secretary and Treasurer of the Bill Tutte Memorial Fund tells IDG Connect. “It was understood Enigma appealed to people’s imagination and there was large scale, rather prurient, public interest in the nature of Turing’s death.”

“That unfortunately diverted people’s attention away from the far more important activities that were going on at Bletchley Park during the war. It suited the security services to feed the Alan Turing publicity machine while far more important people get very little recognition at all. We felt that was unjust and set about trying to do something about it.”

Bill Tutte was the son of a gardener from Newmarket. In 1935 he accepted a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge to study science. Yet from his first days at university he attended lectures of the mathematical society and so teamed up with three friends to solve the problem of “squaring the square”. He later explained how despite several degrees in science he “learned mathematical research by doing it for fun”.

It was during World War Two however, that these mathematical skills truly came into their own, as aged 24 he entered the secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. The last surviving code breaker, Captain Jerry Roberts – who died in March 2014 – described in an interview [PDF from 2009] how it took Tutte two-and-a-half months of “dogged and persistent work” to sketch out the entire structure of the Lorenz machine.

“Tutte was a reserved, moon-faced man, who shared my office,” he said, “and when he sat there twiddling a pencil and staring into the middle distance, I thought he wasn’t earning his corn, but I was wrong. Turing had at least seen and handled Enigma before the war, but Tutte never saw the Lorenz machine, until the war was over. It was a brilliant achievement, dubbed by one commentator ‘the outstanding mental feat of the last century’.”

Once war ended and the whole Bletchley Park operation was condemned to secrecy, Bill Tutte completed his doctorate in Cambridge then took a job at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. There he produced some pioneering work on graph theory – an important component of modern computer science and mathematics.

Interestingly, unlike Tommy Flowers, who designed the first computer, Colossus, Tutte’s career remained largely unhindered by the lack of ability to talk about his war work. Yet as his biography [PDF] on the Royal Society explained, it was still not until Tony Sale was given permission to rebuild Colossus “that Tutte’s contributions to deciphering were revealed in New Scientist [in 1997], just four days before Tutte’s 80th birthday.” And even then, it was not until 2011 that a BBC TV documentary programme “The Lost Heroes of Bletchley Park” [Vimeo video] brought him any public recognition.

It was this program that alerted the people of Newmarket to Tutte and following a campaign by the Newmarket Journal, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to his remaining local family members in belated gratitude. This in turn saw the launch of the Bill Tutte Memorial Fund, which built a new memorial to Tutte in Newmarket last September. However, as Fletcher stresses: “No one from the government or security services attended the unveiling of the Bill Tutte memorial” despite being invited.

This year, the Fund has plans to offer its first scholarship to local A-level students with a place at university to read maths or computer science. Its overall aim is to help people like Tutte, who come from ordinary backgrounds.

In the years since the deciphering work on the Lorenz machine has become public knowledge there has been a lot of speculation on how important this was to the outcome of World War Two. One catch-all phrase that is flung about a lot is that Bletchley Park “shortened the war by two years”. This has been attributed specifically to both the Enigma and Lorenz team – depending on what point people intend to make - but is usually attributed to Sir Harry Hinsely in relation to the entire effort.

Fletcher of the Memorial Fund is convinced of Lorenz’s extreme importance and wrote a paper [PDF]: “How Bill Tutte Won the War (or at least helped to shorten it by two years)”. However, Tommy Flowers’ son Kenneth takes the opposing view saying, “I think people get carried away” about the importance of Lorenz. “I remember dad telling me Turing had saved the country”.

Whichever way you look at things though, it is certainly true that neither Bill Tutte nor Tommy Flowers receive the kind of recognition that Alan Turing now does. The recent Imitation Game film [YouTube trailer] gave him the full Hollywood makeover complete with conflated historical events and ‘Famous Five Crack Enigma’ style script. There have also been several decent biographies and a rather excellent BBC drama from 1996 [YouTube video] starring Derek Jacobi.

However, as Kenneth Flowers pointed out about his dad: “Everything that is interesting is in his work.” He is not like “Turing who is worth looking at outside his work.” Bill Tutte was the same: he was a hard-working fellow who lived to a ripe old age. He married but had no children and enjoyed walking holidays. This simply does not have the tragic popular interest of Turing’s life.

Either way, the work of these early tech pioneers - including Turing - certainly does alert us to the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes that nobody ever hears about. As Fletcher puts it: “Tutte was a very clever, gentle man who did something absolutely magnificent for which he received no recognition… and for which we should be eternally grateful.”


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