Uncovering Colossus - Prof Brian Randell on Bletchley Park, Enigma

Discussion in 'Top Secret' started by Fred Wilson, Jul 2, 2014.

  1. Fred Wilson

    Fred Wilson Member

    Uncovering Colossus - Prof Brian Randell

    Colossus, the world's first electronic computer, was built during World War II, but kept secret for more than 30 years.
    Professor Brian Randell tells the story about how he stumbled across a reference to its existence and
    eventually led to the UK government lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding this pioneering computer in 1975.
    Prof Brian Randell's presentation was given in the new Colossus Gallery in The National Museum of Computing on 7 February 2013.

    An outstanding presentation. Well worth a listen.

  2. Uncle_Vanya

    Uncle_Vanya Junior Member

    It was often understood that Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of the colossus computers at the end of WW2 as they were "no longer required". However this is not strictly correct as I understand this. Two fully operational Collossi computers were reported to have been dismantled and crated up, along with the schematics, and sent to America for their evaluation. Also, the GC&CS, Bletchley Park continued to use them for many years when GC & CS became GCHQ and move to the new site at Cheltenham.

    I have a great interest in military history as an amateur, also Sigint, Elint, crypto and matters pertaining such as 'Y' intercepts, as I worked into this whilst in the Royal Signals during the the 1960s and into the 1970s. GCHQ is very much in the public eye at the moment after the publicity surrounding Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Mr Snowden, after they release much of this into the public domain and Internet. It has certainly put the cat a mongst the pigdeons as it were amongst our EU and NATO allies. GCHQ appears to be the 'poodle' pf the NSA and CIA etc.

    Of course even though I left the British Army 38 years ago, and no longer have any knowledge etc, it is not at all surprising to me with what has been going on as reported via Wikileaks and Mr Snowden's revelations. Of course, once having signed the Official Secrets Act (OSS) a number of times in my working life, then I am bound by this - perhaps? :biggrin: :salut:

    I certainly don't want the 5 AM knock on the door by Special Branch or the Men in Suits from MI5. :salut: :cop: :pipe:
  3. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    Would I be correct in saying that the "Collosus" was the principle British contribution to WW2?

    The number of months that this one piece of machinery shaved off the war, the lives it saved, the ships that were not sunk. All of incalculable value.

    Whilst Germany put their best minds to work coming up with outmoded 'wonder weapons', British minds went to work furthering the good work of 'Room 40' and radio interception.

    In fact, it seems to me that the Allied war effort as a whole was a little farcical until they got their intelligence in order.

    One also has to ask just how many people died keeping the secret safe as well

    One thing it taught post war american military to do, and that was to keep your lead in the intelligence field before you do ANYTHING else.

    All this and I haven't even mentioned 'Collosus' providing the model for the post war boom in computer generated anything.

    I have a freind here who was a boy in wartime Britain. His mother worked in a 'sweet factory', and he told me that she never did manage to bring him home anything from the factory. "Why is that?", I asked him. Denis simply grunted, and exclaimed "Sweet factory my arse! That facility was producing radio valves round the clock." Denis believes that the number of radios in Britain was not so many as to need constant resupply of valves. He further believes that this "sweet factory" was supplying the 'Collosus' with new valves. I believe the memory banks in the machine were non-existent, so it required not only a constant supply of regulated power, but also, the valves were changed far more often than strictly needed. 'Collosus' was a touchy beast, and a single valve breaking down could have wiped the entire bank of it's programming, rendering the code breaking effort useless overnight.

    Denis never did get his 'sweets'. He said, "I had to wait for the Yanks to arrive, and they always had a chocolate or a Hershey bar on hand for British kids like me.

    To work in this factory would have required a security clearence of some sort. Denis father was just such a man already. He worked for Rolls Royce, specifically on troubleshooting the 'Merlin' aero-engine. In his possession, Denis has a 'Merlin' maintenence book, with his father's priceless notes in the margins. Being from this sort of familt, Denis's mother would have been just the sort of person selected to work in a facility like the 'sweet factory', trusted to be closed mouth about what was going on there.

    For the 'Collosus', careless talk really did cost lives.
  4. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    Sad that Denis never got his sweets. On 4 June 1944, when the US troops were off to Omaha from Weymouth, Dorset, they were throwing what they didn't want to we kids at the side of the road. The lad near me got a ten shilling note - a small fortune; I got a large bar of chocolate, fortunately I checked with my mother what laxative chocolate was before we ate it!!
  5. jetson

    jetson Junior Member

    It might be thought that American domination of the developing computer market after the war was, in some small part, due to their having Colossi computers and paperwork given them gratis! Someone this side of the water was not thinking much about the future ahead?
  6. BC610E

    BC610E Junior Member

    I don't think that was a factor, surely Colossus would have been as secret to the US as it was to the UK? The Americans had spent a considerable amount of time and money developing ENIAC, completion of which was too late for WW2.. This was an early computer used, amongst other things, to calculate the trajectory of bombs and shells, something done longhand by humans beforehand. ENIAC is credited with being the source of all the flashing lights we see on computers in post-war SciFi films and TV. To make it look more sexy to Joe Public the US Army added a rack with a large number of ping-pong balls with numbers on them, illuminated by pea-lamps which flashed in sequence with the machine's operation. This had no relevance to the working, it just looked impressive!

    There's quite a bit on ENIAC on the net but it's worth looking at opening minutes of Episode 3 of the BBC documentary "The Dream Machine" on YouTube. Made in 1991 the series was a landmark in mapping the development of computers.



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