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Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Alan Turing Legacy – the cycle of missed computing opportunities

mcafee-resized-for-emailBritain exited the Second World War with a wealth of scientific expertise and an industrial base that whilst in a slightly dishevelled state cosmetically, could be considered world-beating.  Computing, radar, manufacturing and ordinance in 1945 saw Britain leading the way.  Truth be told, the inheritance was squandered, by and large by a country that was financially broke, obsessed with its declining Empire and tired after the best part of 40 years of war.

 

What’s curious is just how badly the legacy was squandered in computing terms.  Name me a British hardware manufacturer that did well in the latter half of the 20th Century?  Ummmmm.   Amstrad?  Ha Ha! No, seriously? Acorn and Sinclair maybe?

 

Most of us were bought computers like this by our parents. Some of the time was spent playing Jetpac, Horace goes Skiing and Chuckie Egg, all with a 5 minute load time (usually followed by a crash and starting again).  But time was spent programming in a version of BASIC, writing programmes, exploring what you could get the machine to do.  The BBC B Micro went into schools, replete with educational games so dull as to render these things pariah status.   But again, kids programmed and shared their programmes.  I actually remember being in the First year (that’s Year 7 in modern coinage) and being in awe of one of the Sixth Formers who had games PUBLISHED for the ZX Spectrum.  Not quite rock star status, but genuinely an achievement to be proud of in 1984, and an inspiration to me and my nerdy chums.

 

Apologies if you are under 35 and this means nothing to you.  If you are over 35, it represented a golden era of programming and learning about programming.  If you are under 35, it may have meant a Sega Mega Drive.

 

I had one of these, and can claim with pride completing Sonic the Hedgehog without cheating, and without losing a life.  Halcyon days at University there.

 

The point was that computing had gone from being an interactive process, promoting programming skills, sharing of home-written code and a mild rise of the nerds to a world of closed OS, and an entirely gaming focused platform.  Who wants to write code when you could plug a copy of Streetfighter2 into your Super Nintendo and spend four consecutive hours kicking butt with Ryu’s special fireball move?

 

Parallels can be drawn with home PC’s.  As the computing power/price point made it affordable to have a PC/laptop at home, there was a brief flowering of HTML and JavaScript programming amongst users.  But this has been superseded by tablets with closed OS’s and smartphones.  You could argue that the App has potentially charged a renaissance, but the reality is you write Apps for money, and anyway, you have to get it approved by the OS vendor before it’s published.  There’s no joy in programming for the hell of it, no messing about with machine code just to see what you could get the thing to do.  The motivation has changed because of the grip of the manufacturers on your home-written code.

The UK Government has made noises about encouraging schools to teach programming for years, and has recently announced that it’s about to start teaching it (kind of) in schools.  It’s years too late.  There is a generation (or possibly two) that had access to affordable computing, clearly came from a nation that had the nouse and willingness to design and build great technology, but weren’t given the opportunities, incentives and encouragement to do so.  People from the engineering sector have moaned about the same thing for years.

 

McAfee is doing its bit to help.  At a local level, we do a lot of outreach activities including coding days in schools, as well teaching the kids about online safety.  We’ve also found that following up on these activities presenting at parents evenings generates a positive response, although the focus tends to be on what the parents can do to support the kids, since it’s them we’re really concerned about.

 

On a more national level, McAfee are helping BCS with its efforts to build a curriculum for schools teaching computer science.  This is a critical time for reversing the trend of the last 20 years of teaching (or non-teaching) of this topic, and McAfee are investing time heavily in this process.  It’s in everyone’s interest that this process succeeds, and McAfee believes it has a good long term return for all parties involved.

 

But back to my overarching point.  The cycle of technology, from open to closed repeats itself.  Kids right now don’t get ICT, they consume it.  And it means that the correct Legacy of Turing where a country of people played and programmed with equal measure is currently lost, and we are definitely worse off as a result.

 

Author: Graeme Stewart, McAfee

Bletchley Park’s Forgotten Heroes

Bletchley Parks Forgotten Heroes

Whenever anybody mentions code breaking, Bletchley Park and the Second World War, many of those who know the story instantly think of one man: Alan Turing. The Alan Turing story has become the overarching tale to come out of Bletchley Park since the secrets were finally unlocked in the 1970s. His achievements in breaking the ‘impenetrable’ Enigma code during the Second World War is no doubt outstanding, but what about the achievements of those whose stories have not made it into the mainstream?

 

During World War Two, there were over 6,000 people stationed at “Churchill’s House of Secrets” – Bletchley Park. Known as Station X, one of the most vital roles the site had to play was that of a code breaking station used to receive messages from interceptors and aim to crack the code, usually within hours of it being sent by the German Wehrmacht. The site didn’t feature on maps of the area, and for decades afterwards everyone who was there was sworn to strict secrecy after signing the Official Secrets Act when they commenced work.

 

In total, there were 118 code breakers based at Bletchley Park, doing various different functions. The high level intelligence decrypted from the German machines was called ‘Ultra’ and according to many sources it was thanks to this information that the war ended when it did. Had it not been for Ultra, the war may have continued for up to four years, at the cost of millions of lives.

 

When details of the work undergone at Bletchley Park did emerge, only a handful of the people who were there got the recognition that they deserved, and some of the others who changed the world, disappeared from history.

 

It seems that Alan Turing was only half of the story.

 

Enigma wasn’t the only machine used to encrypt messages during the Second World War. A German cipher system called Lorenz, nicknamed Tunny by the British, was used by the German High Command and was their most top-level code. Tunny was encrypted to an entirely different level, a level that nothing was known about. No one in Britain had even seen a Lorenz machine before, let alone tried to crack the codes it produced.

BLETCHLEY PARKS FORGOTTON HEROES copy copy (1)

Tunny presented a brand new challenge to the British code breakers, and it was 24 year old mathematician Bill Tutte who was called upon to help solve the code. Tutte had been stationed at Bletchley Park early in the war and had been given the responsibility of deciphering Italian Navy messages as part of the research station after being turned down for a position on Turing’s Enigma group.

 

In summer 1941, Tutte was transferred to working on the Tunny code and despite the difficult encryption levels and foreign machines, he managed to work out the logic behind the system using pieces of paper, a pencil and his brain.

 

Once the logic behind the code had been discovered it enabled the nine cryptanalysts in the Testery who were working on the Tunny code to decipher some of the most important messages, some of which were from Adolf Hitler himself.

 

In a 2010 interview with Computer Weekly (computerweekly.com), Captain Jerry Roberts, the last surviving member of the Testery said: “Bill Tutte was an astonishingly brilliant man. He was a 24 year old mathematician, and by sheer iron logic he worked out how the [Tunny] system worked. I was working in the same office as Tutte and I used to see him staring into the middle distance and twiddling his pencil and making endless counts. I used to wonder whether he was getting anything done, but he most emphatically was. When you consider that there were three levels of encryption, it was an extraordinary performance,” he says. “It has even been called the outstanding mental feat of the last century, and if you take into consideration everything that happened in the last century…”

 

Following the discovery made by Bill Tutte, the code breakers needed a machine to help them decipher the Tunny codes at a faster speed. The first machine produced, named Heath Robinson, was deemed too unreliable and slow for the job, so an engineer named Tommy Flowers was called upon to design a replacement.

 

In the coming months, Flowers and his team designed and built a machine at the Post Office Research Centre in Dollis Hill. The machine was dubbed Colossus, due to its gigantic size. The machine was to become the first all-electronic, digital and programmable computer and was a feat of design and engineering at the time.

 

The first Colossus machine became active in January 1944 and proved to be so useful in deciphering the Tunny codes, that ten machines were commissioned by Churchill’s Government to be used during the war. It was thanks to the decrypting of a German Tunny code, that vital information was received about the D Day Landings in June 1945.

 

After the war ended later in 1945, all but two Colossi were dismantled immediately, and Flowers was forced to destroy the blueprints linked to the design of the machine. Like Tutte, all of Flowers’ war work at Dollis Hill and Bletchley Park was top secret and couldn’t be spoken of until it became unclassified.

 

The final two Colossi were shipped to GCHQ and were ordered to be destroyed in 1960. It was at this time that Flowers knew his work was going to be lost to history, which is recalled in Sinclair McKay’s book, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010):

“When interviewed some years ago, Dr Flowers himself recalled with some sadness the moment in 1960 when the orders came through to destroy the last two remaining Colossus machines, which had been shipped to GCHQ. ‘That was a terrible mistake,’ said Flowers. ‘I was instructed to destroy all the records, which I did. I took all the drawings and the plans and all the information about Colossus on paper and put it in the boiler fire. And saw it burn.’

BLETCHLEY PARKS FORGOTTON HEROES copy 2

For all of his efforts during the war, Flowers was awarded £1,000, which didn’t cover the personal investment he had made into the machine.  Shortly after the war was over, Flowers applied for a loan to build a computer with similar technology to Colossus. He was turned down as the bank didn’t believe such a machine was possible. Little did they know the hand that Flowers had had in winning the war a few years earlier!

 

 

The release of information about Flowers’ warwork came much too late to give him the full recognition he deserved. Even his family had no idea to what level he had been involved in the war, having only known he had done some ‘secret and important work’ prior to publication.

 

Recognition Flowers did receive included an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 1977, and another from De Montfort University in Leicester. It also became known that he was being considered for a knighthood, however these plans came too late for Tommy and he sadly died aged 92 in October 1998.

 

Likewise, after the war ended, Bill Tutte made a career for himself in academia that took him to Canada where he lived for most of his adult life. In 1987 his wartime effort was recognised and he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, however this came long after his appointment as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which occurred in 1958. In 2001 Tutte won the CRM-Fields-PIMS Prize, a Canadian award in mathematical sciences. The recognition for his work happened late in his life, as Bill died in May 2002 aged 84.

 

During the course of World War Two, the British code breakers were responsible for the breaking of up to 4,000 German messages per day and helped to keep the allied forces one step ahead of the Nazi war movement. Their contribution to the British war effort was decisive in the outcome of the war.

 

Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers are just two people who helped to change the course of World War Two. There is no doubt that there are indeed more men and women who worked remarkably hard to aid Britain’s war effort who simply haven’t had the recognition they deserve for their work.

 

Author: Helen Morgan, CyberTalk

Opinions are those of the author and not those of SBL as a whole

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