Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Remember Tommy Flowers

Fig 1. Tommy Flowers MBE
Tommy Flowers might well be a name you never heard before today, and yet, he should be remembered as one of the giants upon the shoulders of which we all stand as computer programmers.

Modern computing was, at least in part, born of war, many technological advancements are. As a result of that, they can be shrouded in secrecy by necessity, robbing the people involved of the recognition they deserve, of their place in history.

This is a travesty.

We can never give Tommy the recognition he deserves, we can speak his name, we can remember him.

Born on 22nd December 1905, the son of a bricklayer in the East End of London. Tommy was 8 years old when the first world war broke out. By May 1915, when the first bombs were dropped on London, Tommy was just 9 years old.

Tommy did not have a privileged life, he didn't mingle with high society, he worked extremely hard, to become anything.

As a young man Tommy took an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London.

While working as an apprentice at the Royal Arsenal, he took evening classes at the University of London, earning an electrical engineering degree.

In 1926 Tommy took a research position in telecommunications at the General Post Office, in London.

The world was recovering, slowly, from the first world war when Tommy took his position at the General Post Office, he settled into the life of a researcher. He focused upon the development of an all electronic telephone exchange.

Tommy could not have known then, but everything he had done with his life was preparing him to save the lives of thousands, and play his part in changing the world.

The world began to go to war again in 1939. By 1941 information technology was already playing a big part in the success of the allies.  Alan Turing was already at Bletchley Park, playing a big part in cracking the Enigma code.

It was in February 1941 that Tommy first came into contact with the Bletchley Park team when director of the General Post Office was asked by Alan Turing for help. Turing needed engineers and researchers, able to build his machines.

Initially Turing wanted engineers to construct a relay based machine, still focused on cracking, ever faster, the Enigma code used to encrypt Nazi communications.

The initial project fell through, but Turing noticed that Tommy was dedicated, and clearly gifted. In 1943 Turing introduced Tommy to Max Newmann. Newmann was in charge of the effort to automate part of the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher.

Lorenz was much more complicated than Enigma, from an engineering point of view it demanded a much more complex machine. Tommy and another researcher by the name of Frank Morell worked on the first machine to decipher Lorenz.

The first machine was named the Heath Robbinson, after cartoonist William Heath Robbinson, known for drawing wantonly complex machinery that was supposed to carry out simple tasks.

Fig 2. A potato peeler by W. Heath Robinson

The Heath Robinson had a couple of dozen valves and can be considered the predecessor to Colossus. Heath Robinson was effective, but slow, and difficult to operate.

The construction of Colossus was the brain child of Tommy, as the name suggests it was an immense machine, consisting of, at first, 1800 valves, and occupying an entire room. It would be the worlds first electronic digital programmable computer.

Tommy went to the powers that be at Bletchley Park with his vast experience, and his new idea, and was met with skepticism, since at that time the most complicated comparable device had something like 150 valves.

He tried to argue that the telephone exchange was of a comparable complexity and was reliable because it was operated in a stable controlled environment and was powered on all the time.

Tommy knew from his work at the General Post Office that valves were perfectly reliable, so long as you did not turn them off, since they come under most stress when being powered on.

They refused to fund Colossus, he was met with the notion that by the time his machine was operational, the war would be over and there would be no need for it.

He obviously knew they were wrong, he began work on Colossus anyway, with his own funds. Later he got the backing of his superiors at the General Post Office, this afforded him rapid delivery of the parts required to construct Colossus.

His team of dedicated engineers built the first working Colossus in just 11 months, it worked, 5 times faster than Heath Robinson. Shortly after, the machine was dismantled and moved to Bletchley Park.

On 1st June 1944, a mark 2 machine was operational at Bletchley Park, it immediately provided vital information regarding the D-Day landings planned for 5th June, just 4 days after the machine went operational.

The act of ignoring the opinion of his superiors at Bletchley Park, the act of using his own funds to begin working on the first Colossus when he did, afforded them that vital intelligence.

By the end of the war there was 10 Colossi in operation.

The war was won, the government recognized Tommy's effort by granting him £1000, which didn't cover the cost of his personal expenses for the initial development of the machine, and was shared among himself and his engineers.

After the war the machines were dismantled, and their blueprints said to be destroyed in an effort to maintain secrecy. Anyone who had worked on Colossus bound by the official secrets act.

When Tommy approached the Bank of England for a loan to build a new machine, they simply didn't believe it would work. Bound by the official secrets act, he could not tell the bank he had already built such machines, and they had just helped to win a world war.

Tommy returned to his job at the General Post Office, continuing work on all electronic telephone exchanges, a project brought to completion in 1950.

Tommy Flowers died on 28th October 1998, a man of 92 years.

16 years ago today, the world lost a real life hero, and a pioneer.

Remember him.