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Building An Old Box

Today was the anniversary of Alan Mathison Turing publishing his paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem“, which is one of the founding documents of IT. Along with Claude Elwood Shannon’s1937 masters thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, you have the basis for the fundamental components of modern computers.

It was therefore highly appropriate to read that one of the more important of early computers has been resurrected: Code-cracking machine returned to life.

These were the machines that took the output generated by the Colossus, the true “code-cracker”, and used it to convert the encrypted messages into plain-text. Both the Colossus and the Tunny machines were created by engineers working for the telephone division of the Royal Mail.


1 Steve Bates { 05.29.11 at 5:33 pm }

Bryan, if you haven’t read Neal Stephenson’s quasi-historical novel Cryptonomicon, I’m pretty sure you would enjoy it.

2 Bryan { 05.29.11 at 8:06 pm }

If I ever get some time, I’ll put it on the stack, Steve.

3 Kryten42 { 05.30.11 at 2:40 am }

Truly amazing stuff! As an Engineer, I’m in awe! It’s amazing that the work done by the likes of Bill Tutte probably couldn’t be replicated today. He was effectively the world’s first hacker! 😆 He reverse engineered a German enciphering machine he’d never seen and created a machine to decipher the coded messages, all on paper and his own head! Could you imaging telling a would be Master’s or PhD grad that they had to produce an original work without using any computer system? It might, at least, flush away all the jokers pretending they know anything. 😆 I’ve mentioned my UK PhD friend who studied at Oxford in the 50’s, they never had any catalog’s where they could phone and get any equipment they needed, it all had to be designed and built by themselves.


You should read Cryptonomicon Bryan (good tip Steve! It should be required reading for Science/IT/Engineering students IMNSHO). It’s one of the few books I kept (I think it was published about 10 years ago or so?) It was a kind of comparison of 40’s era & 90’s era cryptography, codebreaking, etc (in an extremely simple nutshell). Actually… that doesn’t do it justice at all (from what I remember of it). 😆 You’ll have to read it. 😉

4 Bryan { 05.30.11 at 2:42 pm }

Almost all of the early drones that were built in the 1950s and tested locally used a rotary phone dialer for input because there were so many devices already built by Bell Labs, among others, that could receive and interpret those codes and set a pattern of relays as a result.

If you could understand a telephone interchange, understanding a binary adder circuit is trivial. It really is all about switches, whether they are mechanical, electro-mechanical, or electronic. The problem is the complexity of figuring out how to wire the switches together to get the desired result. Being able to do that without anything to guide you, like a schematic, is the real talent.

It is amazing that they accomplished the concept to product is such a short time.