THE MACHINE responsible for shortening the Second World War by months, if not years, is celebrating a big birthday.
Colossus, the machine designed by telecoms engineer Tommy Flowers (and not Alan Turing), has reached its 75th birthday and is celebrating it at its home at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.
In fact, the machine currently in situ is a working replica of the original, which was long destroyed, thanks in no small part to the extensive secrecy surrounding the project. Indeed it wasn't until the 1970s that the machine's (now very much former) existence was even acknowledged by UK authorities.
Surviving members of ‘C' Watch, the team in charge of the clandestine computing milestone, were back at Bletchley today. During service, they were bound by the Official Secrets Act, but in many cases, knew little about just what a big deal this all was.
Colossus was powerful enough to decrypt messages from the Nazis and other Axis countries, even those encoded with complex cyphers. It was also able to generate messages using the same code. The result was that the Allied forces had a jump on any Nazi plans, and was able to send false intelligence back across enemy lines.
Yet Colossus wasn't anything like the computers we know today, using 1600 vacuum tubes instead of transistors. In fact, it has more in common with Babbage than Ballmer.
In total, there were ten Colossus machines used in the war effort, with a further two never making it into service, and despite attempts to convert them to peace-time use, these, too, were dismantled in the 1960s.
Much of the legend of Colossus has been lost to the furnace - after all, it was never thought that anyone would want or need to know about it, but the working replica, completed in 2008 ensures that we'll never forget one of the most important weapons of World War 2, one which didn't ever see the frontline, nor take a single life. μ
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