When Bill Tutte, the man who deciphered Hitler’s Lorenz coding machine, used to pop in to see his nephews, they knew nothing of his secret Bletchley Park calculations which proved so vital during World War II.
“He used to come and visit us at Christmas and entertain us as children,” says Richard Youlden, who simply knew the codebreaker as Uncle Bill. “It wasn’t until 1996, when Tony Sale [the late engineer who oversaw the Colossus project] came to my house to talk to Uncle Bill about the Colossus Rebuild Project, that I began to realise the huge significance of his codebreaking achievement."
© The National Museum of Computing
Colossus was the world’s first electronic computer, built by Tommy Flowers – whose son, Kenneth, met Youlden for the first time when both men paid a visit to the Tunny and Colossus Galleries at the National Museum of Computing, created by curators to tell a tale their heroic ancestors even kept secret from them.
“He mentioned Bletchley Park,” Flowers recalls of his dad.
“But I didn't know any of the details -- he kept quiet about that.
“I knew it was something scientific or technical, but I didn't learn about Colossus until the story became public in the 1970s."
Lorenz messages had been decoded by hand until the Colossus arrived, rapidly accelerating the process and shortening the length of the war.
"The work of Tutte and Flowers was so important that it could not be made public for decades,” says Andy Clark, a trustee of the museum.
“When the story of World War II codebreaking was starting to be told, the Enigma story took much of the limelight because, although it was an extraordinary achievement with huge impact, it used a much less complex technology that was less sensitive to subsequently reveal.
“By contrast, Lorenz code-breaking was far more sophisticated. The techniques developed remained relevant to breaking increasingly complex post-war cipher systems.”
Youlden and Flowers reminisced over the museum’s rebuilds of machine and computer. A memorial to Flowers, a telephone engineer for the company which would later form part of BT, will be unveiled at BT’s technical headquarters in Martlesham later this month, while fundraising has begun for a memorial to Tutte in his hometown of Newmarket.
Museum organisers are also planning to celebrate Colossus’s first “attack” on a Lorenz message next February, and are asking former operators of the groundbreaking computer to contact them.
- Visit billtuttememorial.org.uk to contribute to the Bill Tutte Memorial Fund.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
You might also like:
Flossie the computer is rescued from scrapheap by National Museum of Computing
National Museum of Computing honours Sir Maurice Wilkes by revisiting EDSAC machine
National Museum of Computing opens Women in Computing display with Google help