As I looked back at the preface that I wrote some 25 years ago for Basic Computer Adventures, I was pleasantly surprised to not find any glaring blunders or lame predictions. However, my comments about ENIAC must be updated. As a result of Britain finally declassifying the details of the Colossus computer developed for cracking the so-called German Tunny code, we now know that the first electronic digital computer was designed by Thomas H. Flowers and not by Mauchly and Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania.
The first working Colossus computer was delivered to Bletchley Park in early December 1943. It had 1,600 valves (vacuum tubes) and operated at 5,000 characters per second. It first ran on December 8, 1943 and decoded its first Tunny message on February 5, 1944.
The second version of Colossus, of which nine more were built, had 2,400 valves and operated at a speed of 25,000 characters per second.
Interestingly, the people at Bletchley never saw an actual Tunny machine until after the war, but they had described it exactly and programmed it into Colossus. In fact, Tunny was a 12-wheel Lornez SZ40 cipher machine. Bear in mind, Colossus was not a general purpose, stored program computer. It had just one purpose—breaking the Tunny codes. Nevertheless, it was these 10 Colossus machines that led to the first general purpose programmable computer built at the University of Manchester after the war.
What happened to the Colossus machines? At the express orders of Winston Churchill, all ten of them were broken up and secretly discarded.
What happened to Tommy Flowers, the true and sole inventor of the electronic digital computer? Britain gave him £1,000 for his 6 years at Bletchley, barely enough to cover his debts and said, “don’t tell anyone what you’ve done.” He went to work for British Telcom who thought his idea for using computers for telephone switching was ridiculous and he died a bitter and frustrated man. He gets practically no mention or recognition in any book or history of computers.
I might mention that one of the first computers I learned to program (1961) was the Bendix G15, which was one of the direct commercial descendents of Colossus. It used a language called GATE that was a cross between machine code and a few Algol-like commands. It’s so obscure, it’s not even mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Computer Science.
Unlike many educators today, I believe there is a great deal that can be learned from history. I urge you to make a pilgrimage to Bletchley Park, pick up some books about Alan Turning, Tommy Flowers, and Colossus and start looking at computers and the Internet from a vastly broadened perspective.
Oh, and have fun with the adventures in this book!
Morristown, New Jersey