04 May 2009

Colossus computer

The invention: The first all-electronic calculating device, the Colossus computer was built to decipher German military codes during World War II. The people behind the invention: Thomas H. Flowers, an electronics expert Max H. A. Newman (1897-1984), a mathematician Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954), a mathematician C. E. Wynn-Williams, a member of the Telecommunications Research Establishment An Undercover Operation In 1939, during World War II (1939-1945), a team of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers met at Bletchley Park, outside London, to discuss the development of machines that would break the secret code used in Nazi military communications. The Germans were using a machine called “Enigma” to communicate in code between headquarters and field units. Polish scientists, however, had been able to examine a German Enigma and between 1928 and 1938 were able to break the codes by using electromechanical codebreaking machines called “bombas.” In 1938, the Germans made the Enigma more complicated, and the Polish were no longer able to break the codes. In 1939, the Polish machines and codebreaking knowledge passed to the British. Alan Mathison Turing was one of the mathematicians gathered at Bletchley Park to work on codebreaking machines. Turing was one of the first people to conceive of the universality of digital computers. He first mentioned the “Turing machine” in 1936 in an article published in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. The Turing machine, a hypothetical device that can solve any problem that involves mathematical computation, is not restricted to only one task—hence the universality feature. Turing suggested an improvement to the Bletchley codebreaking machine, the “Bombe,” which had been modeled on the Polish bomba. This improvement increased the computing power of the machine. The new codebreaking machine replaced the tedious method of decoding by hand, which in addition to being slow, was ineffective in dealing with complicated encryptions that were changed daily. Building a Better Mousetrap The Bombe was very useful. In 1942, when the Germans started using a more sophisticated cipher machine known as the “Fish,” Max H. A. Newman, who was in charge of one subunit at Bletchley Park, believed that an automated device could be designed to break the codes produced by the Fish. Thomas H. Flowers, who was in charge of a switching group at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, had been approached to build a special-purpose electromechanical device for Bletchley Park in 1941. The device was not useful, and Flowers was assigned to other problems. Flowers began to work closely with Turing, Newman, and C. E. Wynn-Williams of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) to develop a machine that could break the Fish codes. The Dollis Hill team worked on the tape driving and reading problems, and Wynn-Williams’s team at TRE worked on electronic counters and the necessary circuitry. Their efforts produced the “Heath Robinson,” which could read two thousand characters per second. The Heath Robinson used vacuum tubes, an uncommon component in the early 1940’s. The vacuum tubes performed more reliably and rapidly than the relays that had been used for counters. Heath Robinson and the companion machines proved that high-speed electronic devices could successfully do cryptoanalytic work (solve decoding problems). Entirely automatic in operation once started, the Heath Robinson was put together at Bletchley Park in the spring of 1943. The Heath Robinson became obsolete for codebreaking shortly after it was put into use, so work began on a bigger, faster, and more powerful machine: the Colossus. Flowers led the team that designed and built the Colossus in eleven months at Dollis Hill. The first Colossus (Mark I) was a bigger, faster version of the Heath Robinson and read about five thousand characters per second. Colossus had approximately fifteen hundred vacuum tubes, which was the largest number that had ever been used at that time. Although Turing and Wynn-Williams were not directly involved with the design of the Colossus, their previous work on the Heath Robinson was crucial to the project, since the first Colossus was based on the Heath Robinson. Colossus became operational at Bletchley Park in December, 1943, and Flowers made arrangements for the manufacture of its components in case other machines were required. The request for additional machines came in March, 1944. The second Colossus, the Mark II, was extensively redesigned and was able to read twentyfive thousand characters per second because it was capable of performing parallel operations (carrying out several different operations at once, instead of one at a time); it also had a short-term memory. The Mark II went into operation on June 1, 1944. More machines were made, each with further modifications, until there were ten. The Colossus machines were special-purpose, programcontrolled electronic digital computers, the only known electronic programmable computers in existence in 1944. The use of electronics allowed for a tremendous increase in the internal speed of the machine. Impact The Colossus machines gave Britain the best codebreaking machines of World War II and provided information that was crucial for the Allied victory. The information decoded by Colossus, the actual messages, and their influence on military decisions would remain classified for decades after the war. The later work of several of the people involved with the Bletchley Park projects was important in British computer development after the war. Newman’s and Turing’s postwar careers were closely tied to emerging computer advances. Newman, who was interested in the impact of computers on mathematics, received a grant from the Royal Society in 1946 to establish a calculating machine laboratory at Manchester University. He was also involved with postwar computer growth in Britain. Several other members of the Bletchley Park team, including Turing, joined Newman at Manchester in 1948. Before going to Manchester University, however, Turing joined Britain’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). At NPL, Turing worked on an advanced computer known as the Pilot Automatic Computing Engine (Pilot ACE). While at NPL, Turing proposed the concept of a stored program, which was a controversial but extremely important idea in computing. A“stored” program is one that remains in residence inside the computer, making it possible for a particular program and data to be fed through an input device simultaneously. (The Heath Robinson and Colossus machines were limited by utilizing separate input tapes, one for the program and one for the data to be analyzed.) Turing was among the first to explain the stored-program concept in print. He was also among the first to imagine how subroutines could be included in a program. (Asubroutine allows separate tasks within a large program to be done in distinct modules; in effect, it is a detour within a program. After the completion of the subroutine, the main program takes control again.)


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