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Planning Tommy Flowers' Day 2016: 5 reasons to join our crusade…

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On 22nd December 1905 – 110 years’ ago today – Thomas Harold Flowers was born at 160 Abbott Road in Poplar, East London. He grew up to be a taciturn fellow with neatly brushed fair hair and sensible glasses. And through quiet hard work and diligence he built the first programmable computer, Colossus.

Due to the nature of the work – it was a top secret part of World War Two code breaking – he wasn’t recognised for his achievement until the end of his life. And even now he is still not very well known.

Something needs to be done about this…

5 reasons why recognising Tommy Flowers is an important crusade

When I stumbled upon Tommy Flowers, via his secret work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, I was blown away by what a splendid chap he was. Mr Flowers was talented, self-deprecating and genuinely decent to people he worked with. His sheer lack of recognition seems plain wrong. Here is why:

  1. A thwarted pioneer: Tommy Flowers built the first programmable computer and when war ended was made to destroy it and remain silent for decades.
  2. A tireless innovator: Flowers worked on the problem of how to digitise the telephone system for 10 years before WW2 began. Post-war he quietly went back and discovered the solution.
  3. Other tech war heroes are gaining recognition: Alan Turing got a film made about him starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Tommy Flowers is barely known outside niche tech and engineering circles.
  4. A man not a machine: Colossus is far better known than its creator.
  5. An excellent bloke: Flowers was modest, self-effacing and didn’t like to “make a fuss” – all excellent qualities that stand at odds with the bragging, brandishing self-promotion culture that seems virtually compulsory in modern business.

But what can be done?

My first thought was a biography. But after talking to his son I concluded that there probably wasn’t enough material for the kind of non-technical book it would take to make him truly better known.

As Kenneth Flowers put 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”.

So, what else?

Well, over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do here. I took a pilgrimage up to Dollis Hill where the first computer was built. I was fascinated by the sheer suburban dullness of the setting.

But the video I attempted to make didn’t do Tommy Flowers justice at all. It just looked like something a pretentious 16-year old with a hand held camera and obsession with Derek Jarman might attempt.

Then I wondered about a decent promo video to highlight Tommy Flowers’ achievements that we could spam round the internet. But it was all too twee. And besides if we’re making marketing materials, what are they for?

Tommy Flowers desperately needs his own day

There is a whole crazy world around day-naming out there. In many ways it is a pretty appalling online universe – see UK and US versions – but setting aside the more rubbish aspects, a Tommy Flowers’ Day is clearly needed. And to pull it off we need a little bit of forward planning… and your help.

This is what we’re going to do over the next couple of months:

ONE: Pick a date – after all, today, his birthday is a bit too close to Christmas and might get a bit lost.

TWO: Run a campaign – we going to need your support to make this work.

THREE: Launch the first Tommy Flowers’ Day in summer 2016 – the more high-profile we can make this the better.

The only thing we want at this stage is your agreement that this is important. Please just add your name, email and any suggestions to our list. We’ll use this to keep you posted.

Tommy Flowers is the forgotten father of computing. And desperately needs more recognition. Please help us to make that happen. #TFD #TommyFlowersDay.

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More stories on Tommy Flowers:

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


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