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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who was Tommy Flowers?

On the never ending treadmill why is it that there always seems to be sooo much to do ? I'm worn out just thinking about it, but as always the correct approach is break it all up into small chunks, prioritise the chunks, start the most important chunk, start it now! This method works and I'm happy with it, but sometimes there seems to be so many chunks that prioritising them is as big a headache as getting them done. At least I feel like I'm getting somewhere now that some of the bigger chunks are moving along nicely.

All this sorting out has meant I've been a bit lacking on a couple of things, notably, sorting out the golf quarterly for the A.G.S. and talking tech, so this post is to put some of that right.

Naturally I'm not going to blather on about the golf quarterly, other than to say it's on the 22nd at one of two destinations and price negotiations are ongoing.

I am going to blather on about tech though, so be warned, non-geeks and those anti-historian types, look away now.

Let's start at the very beginning (such a very good place to start, as the song goes). Now when I say the beginning I don't mean Charles Babbage's computers. These were slightly more than automated abacuses (abacai??) but they were by no means electronic. The beginning in the electronic sense belongs to the relatively unknown son of a brickie known as Tommy Flowers.

Tommy was born in East End of London in 1905. He served an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineering at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and got a degree in electrical engineering from the University of London. By 1926, he was working for the GPO (General Post Office) where as an engineer it didn't take him long to move into research at the GPO's Dollis Hill four years later. By the time war broke out in 1939 he understood how electronic telephone exchanges could work and it was this switching that would lead him to develop the first truly electronic computer.

The infamous Alan Turing (now considered the founder of computer science) who was working at Bletchley Park code breaking for the war effort contacted Tommy who had been identified through the GPO as someone that Alan believed could build complex electronic equipment to help decode intercepted messages from the Germans. Here, Tommy also met Max Newman who was working on deciphering an even more complex code than the Enigma codes, known internally as "Fish". Tommy's approach was to use valves which he used to run the system having worked with them on the telephone exchanges. He saw them to be reliable, while his seniors at Bletchley weren't convinced. However, he carried on and built an enormous system mostly from his own funding. The girls at Bletchley named the machine Colossus (Over a tonne and an entire room in size) and it used over 1800 valves. By comparison the most complex electronic equipment of the time used about 150 valves.

Colossus ran 5 times faster than "Heath Robinson" which was the previous attempt made from electro-mechanical switches similar to those used in railway systems. Once it had proven itself as workable, a second Colossus was commissioned which when completed produced vital information for the D-Day landings. Specifically a message confirming that Hitler wanted "no additional troops moved to Normandy" as he saw it as a diversion. Eisenhower read the message and announced to his staff, "We go tomorrow." June 6th 1944. Most of the machines were dismantled post-war, but there were two that were relocated to GCHQ (Just around the corner in Cheltenham) where they still ran until the early 60's.

Tommy's work never got the public recognition it deserved, due in part because it was top secret stuff during the war and of course he was covered by the OSA. He carried on at the GPO and developed ERNIE (The random number generator for Premium Bond draws) amongst other things until he retired in 1969. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 92. This summer (2010) Tower Hamlets is opening the "Tommy Flowers Center" as an Technology Center in Henriquesa Street, London.

Clearly without Tommy, computer hardware wouldn't have progressed the way it has, and while it may now be moving in a different direction, today's tech is built by standing on the shoulders of Giant's such as Tommy. We have much to thank him for.
 

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