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Technology Planning and Analysis

5 Reasons I'm chuffed by the UK's new Colossus stamp

I’m so chuffed that Royal Mail has decided to recognise Colossus on its new series of Inventive Britain stamps, issued today. The story of Colossus is the ultimate underdog tale. It reveals so many things about work, history and computing. But above all highlights the incredible work of Tommy Flowers and Bill Tutte. Individuals who received little recognition in their lifetimes… and have still hardly been heard of today.

1 – A most epic thwarting

Colossus, the first computer, was built to churn the maths to keep cracking a code nobody has really heard of. This wasn’t Enigma – everyone had heard of that one. It was Lorenz, which carried messages from Hitler himself, during World War II.

This machine did its job admirably during the conflict but once this ended the information was still top secret. This meant all machines were destroyed and everyone involved went back to their normal daily lives and couldn’t tell a soul. Colossus could have changed the course of computing history… yet nobody even admitted it had even been built.

  • Read more about Bletchley Park past and present here

2 - Bill Tutte a forgotten mathematician

Bill Tutte was the Cambridge mathematician who cracked the Lorenz code. Unlike Enigma there was no example Lorenz machine and it took Tutte two-and-a-half months of “dogged and persistent work” [PDF] to sketch out the entire structure and find the answer. Once he did, though, the code was still so complicated that even the most brilliant mind couldn’t decode messages daily and a machine was required to do the work.

Despite becoming an established mathematician in his own right, Bill Tutte was only recognised for this achievement four days before his 80th birthday. Few people have heard of him today.

  • Read the story of Bill Tutte here

3 - Tommy Flowers who built Colossus

Tommy Flowers built Colossus using his own time and money. He had been an engineer with the Post Office pre-war and was simply seconded to Bletchley Park’s code breaking initiatives. The machine worked first time, which was an astonishing achievement. Yet once war ended he just had to return to his ordinary job where he quietly worked to digitise the telephone system.

Tommy Flowers, who died in 1998, was an all-round excellent fellow: hard working, self-deprecating and extremely talented, but he received little recognition in his life-time. People should be singing his praises left, right and centre today… yet even he is not as well-known as he should be.

  • Read the story of Tommy Flowers here
  • Read my interview with Tommy Flowers’ son, Kenneth here

4 – Popular history gets the facts wrong

It is a sad fact that things often get remembered wrong. This is not a big nefarious plot most of the time - just easier. Alan Turing had an extremely sad life and deserves as much posthumous support as possible but I can’t help feeling the Imitation Game film has proved a travesty of huge proportions. This is nothing to do with superficialities like acting and script, the real disservice it did was to ignore other brilliant Bletchley Park minds in favour of Alan Turing.

Turing was a tiny bit involved in Colossus, he had the idea for his ‘Universal Machine’ before war broke out, but this is not on any level his story.

However, as Flowers’ son Kenneth told me recently, what would have been “interesting to speculate on,” is if Flowers had been able to team up with Turing to work on computers after the war. “The thing that held Turing up after the war when he tried to produce these computing machines was a lack of expertise in electronics,” Flowers junior told me. “[Turing and a colleague] 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.”

5 – Physical post may not be as popular as it was but stamps are everywhere

There is no way a few Royal Mail stamps will alter public perceptions overnight but they will help promote the true story. As one former Colossus operator, Irene Dixon told The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) – which houses the rebuilt Colossus: “I’m absolutely thrilled that Royal Mail is recognising the achievement of Tommy Flowers which was kept secret for so long.”

While Betty O’Connell, who worked alongside her in the 1940s, added: “I hope that this stamp will promote the whole story of Colossus and the breaking of Lorenz and help give it its rightful place in history as the pinnacle of code-breaking at Bletchley Park.”

Next up, Tommy Flowers’ Colossus film…?

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