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Back To The Beginning

The BBC reports on the re-birth of one of the earliest computers: Colossus cracks codes once more

Colossus is widely recognised as being one of the first recognisably modern digital computers and was developed to read messages sent by the German commanders during the closing years of WWII.

It was one of the first ever programmable computers and featured more than 2,000 valves and was the size of a small truck.

The re-built Colossus will be put to work on intercepted radio messages transmitted by radio amateurs in Paderborn, Germany that have been scrambled using a Lorenz SZ42 machine – as used by the German high command in wartime.

The Colossus machine will be pitted against modern computer technology that will also be used to decipher and read the transmitted messages.

In this context a “valve” is a vacuum tube in US English.

This machine was built specifically to break codes, but the concepts it used are found in machines built after the war.

4 comments

1 Steve Bates { 11.16.07 at 1:11 am }

What fun. You don’t need it, but for other nonspecialist readers, I recommend the book Code Breaking by Rudolf Kippenhahn, translated from the German, published in English in 1999. (Oops… I just discovered a worm in my copy. I don’t mean a piece of malware; I mean a bookworm. Damn!)

There’s also a Dutch woman who builds, among many other marvelous devices, modern versions of old crypto equipment. I’ll post her name when I find it.

2 Steve Bates { 11.16.07 at 1:17 am }
3 jams o donnell { 11.16.07 at 9:20 am }

Wow I’d missed that news item. I’m so pleased to see that it is in action again. Bletchley Park was certainly one of Britain’s most important contributions to WWII. Without Colossus and the bombes to decrypt german communication Britain could well have been brought to its knees by U-boats. It is often said that Station X shortened the war by two years. I would not cast much doubt on that assessment.

4 Bryan { 11.16.07 at 9:45 am }

You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, as someone said. It’s difficult to appreciate what an accomplishment the code breaking was until you see it in action.

Jams, without the intelligence you don’t know what’s important and what isn’t and there’s an awful lot of ocean to search if you’re looking for subs. Colossus and radar were crucial to saving the British Isles from invasion, just as the RAF and Royal Navy took the battle to the enemy.