Monday, 15 June 2009

Computer part 2


This is part two of the history of the computer mini blog series. In part one I told the story of Charles Babbage and his difference engine. And how it was never finished in Babbage's lifetime. In this part I am going to tell the story of the WW2 code breakers, Alan Turing and the Colossus computer.
First let's paint the picture from after Babbage's death to the out break of WW2. Well there really isn't much to tell computer speaking. After Babbage's death the difference engine was shelved and, the men with pencils were back in a job. The at the start of the 20th Century WW1 started, at this point there was a chance for Babbage's computer if finished to change the world. The Difference engine was more than a simple pocket calculator, it could do ballistic calculations. Namely the trajectory of shells. This meant WW1 could have been brought to a swifter end, because with accurate shells it would be more likely for the shell to hit the target. Of course this would mean more people would be killed which obviously is not good, but you cannot deny a difference engine computer would have helped end the war. After this Germany was defeated and the treaty of Versailles was brought in. Which ultimately led to the rise of Hitler and the subsequent second world war.
So the year is 1941 Europe is under the Nazi jack boot, and it is the hight of the blitz. England is being bombed nightly. And worst of all vital supply ships are being preyed upon by U boats. The problem is the Germans have secrecy on there side, the U boats use a secret code called the Lorenz cipher under which they would spread orders. What was needed was a way for the British to be able to crack this code, so they could head the U boats off and secure allied shipping.
To achieve this more men with pencils were brought in, these men however were the brightest maths brains from the great universities Oxford, Cambridge and Hull (maybe not Hull). One of this number was a very gifted mathematician called Alan Turing.
Turing was put to work in Hut 8 of Bletchley park, code breaker central. Hear Turing found himself working with some of his old friends and Professors form university. Together they began to work to crack the lorenz cipher. However again there was a problem, like most things done by Humans they weren't fast enough. So complex were these codes that by the time one was cracked it was already redundant. Turing and others realised a better system was needed.
Enter at this point a man from a postal sorting office called Tommy Flowers who saw the future.
Flowers realised that a code was simply a mathematical problem, and that a digital computer which essential just does maths very quickly could crack a code in half the time of a Human. To build this computer Flowers turned to Turing and, together they began to design the workings of the first programmable digital computer. Before Turing and Flowers could build the computer dubbed “Colossus”, they had to pitch the concept to the army top brass. When Flowers predicted the computer would be finished in about a year, the army dismissed the project claiming “The war will probably be over by the time it was finished.”
Fortunately for the free world Flowers knew the war wouldn't be other in a year and, built his computer regardless. Flowers even went so far as to spend £1000 of his own money to ensure it was completed on time. When Colossus was finally finished in 1942/3 the war wasn't other and a faster way of cracking codes was desperately needed.
Thankfully Colossus worked brilliantly and could crack the German high command codes in sometimes less than an hour! The army top brass was so impressed they immediately ordered 10. With Colossus shipping was safe once more and, Britain along with the rest of the allies were given the momentum to ultimately win the war. To the right is an image of a working Colossus.
After WW2 the story of Colossus and it's inventors is much less happy. Bound by the secrecy act Colossus was dismantled and, packed off to some storage facility somewhere never to be used again. Even though it was still in working order. Tommy Flowers was given a small reward from the country for his War work, it was barely enough to cover the money he personally invested. After this Flowers was largely forgotten, a shame for such a innovative man Turing also had a sad future. In 1952 he was charged of Homosexuality which at the time was still classified as a mental illness! He was then found guilty of section 11 of the criminal amendment act, incidentally the same charge the brilliant Oscar Wilde was convicted of more than 50 years earlier. His punishment amounted to a chemical castration! Turing died in 1954 a suicide attempt involving cyanide.
Another tragic end for another brilliant man.
After this Britain's involvement in major computer events subsided and, from then on major advances came from America.
In the next part I am going to go form the sixties to the present day, with the modern Apple phenomena.

Thanks again for reading.


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