Saturday, November 03, 2012

Tommy Flowers: would-be wealth creator

Earlier this week I watched a BBC Timewatch documentary: Code Breakers, Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes. The program told the stories of two men who had worked at the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the second world war - Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. Between them, it was argued, they had helped bring the war to an end, avoiding the needless loss of millions of lives. But it was Tommy Flowers’ story that touched me most deeply.

Tommy Flowers was born in the East End of London in 1905. His father was a bricklayer. He was a bright young man and studied for an engineering degree at night-school before going to work at Dollis Hill, the General Post Office research laboratory in London. In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War he was assigned to Bletchley Park to assist in the codebreaking activity for which that place is now famous. In the course of this work he invented the world’s first electronic computer - Colossus.

Built of glass valves and no more powerful than a modern calculator, Colossus represented an immense engineering achievement. The first machine was delivered in December 1943 and worked first time. The second followed in June 1944 just in time for the D-Day landings. Throughout the last years of the war both machines were used to read communications between Hitler and his general staff - messages that were encrypted using a code which the Germans mistakenly believed to be unbreakable.

With the end of the war, Tommy Flowers was sworn to secrecy and returned to work for the GPO. The Colossus machines were quietly shipped away to GCHQ where, remarkably, they continued to be used until the 1960s.

Meanwhile Flowers, possibly recognising the enormous peacetime potential of computing machines, applied for a loan from the Bank of England to build another machine like Colossus. He was denied the loan because the bank did not believe that such a machine could work and the the Official Secrets Act prevented him from providing the evidence necessary to persuade them.

The Timewatch program described how Tommy Flowers faded into relative obscurity, haunted by a persistent sense of ‘what might have been’ had his working-class roots and cockney accent not weighed against him. He died in 1998 at the age of 92.

Further development of computer technology was largely confined to the USA where, in February 1946, the US Army announced the creation of “the world’s first computer” - ENIAC.

The program concluded with what for me was an unbearably poignant detail. In 1993, at the age of 87, Tommy Flowers bought himself a PC. Finding it difficult to get the hang of, he enrolled on a course in Basic Information Processing at Hendon College at the conclusion of which got a certificate with his name written on it by his tutor - who I imagine was entirely unaware of Tommy’s story.