Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers Paperback – 18 Mar 2010
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Copeland's book is a masterpiece. (George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral)
Review from previous edition Copeland and other contributors have rightly done Flowers and the Tunny code-breakers proud
An engaging book that will be essential reading for historians of twentieth-century technology and warfare. (Nature)
formidably detailed (Guardian)
compelling compilation (New Scientist)
About the Author
Jack Copeland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, and has been studying the history of Bletchley Park since 1992. He is a contributor to Scientific American and his previous publications include Artificial Intelligence, (Blackwell, 1993), Logic and Reality (OUP, 1996), Turing's Machines (OUP, forthcoming), The Essential Turing (OUP, 2004), and Alan Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (OUP, 2005).
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This I think is a tome for the more advanced student of this fascinating subject.
What comes across in these is the extraordinary loyalty and determination of individuals and teams, in spite of the poor living accommodation, welfare and working conditions afforded them in return for their genius and ingenuity.
However, these people fought with their brains. Driven by a collective resolve, winning was cracking a new cipher, which could save hundreds of lives by unveiling a single sentence.
The late Tommy Flowers' section on his work at the Post Office's Dollis Hill research centre using thermionic valves is a fascinating insight as to how it became possible to process data at speeds in powers of ten over mechanical systems, an overture to today's nano-transistor, gigahertz-clocked multi-core power processors.
Combined with the sheer intellectual capacity of the mathematicians working on the project to provide the basis of the programming, this was the key technology that made breaking deeply encrypted messages possible in useable timescales.
It also raises a poignant thought: the `Colossi' - there were quite few of them - seemed to become like trusted old friends, and their destruction after the end of hostilities was viewed by most working with them as a sad affair. Perhaps with 20-20 vision in hindsight, an over-zealous application of the Official Secrets Act, which held back the UK computer industry for decades?
Of interest to historians and the plain curious, this is a quality collection of information on the essence of what made Bletchley Park...and modern computing.
It is easy to assume that Bletchley = Turing = Enigma, but what this book does spectacularly is to reveal, nay, stress, that there were many others (Max Newman and Tom Flowers are two, I haven't got room to name all the participants deserving of being named) without whom Bletchley would either not have existed or not been (as) successful.
There is a huge amount of mathematics in this book, and my (very old) A-level Mathematics came in very handy. However, those that are not mathematically inclined can skip over the detailed maths and continue reading the story and won't miss very much. The obscure material is substantial and detailed but it doesn't interfere with the narrative.
Apart from dispelling a few misapprehensions about the importance of Enigma encipherment and machines relative to Tunny and the Lorenz machines, the most fascinating part was the first person stories of the Bletchley people - or their surviving relatives, and that is this book's great strength or "USP" (unique selling point) in today's jargon.
Good to know how and why a 1940s Colossus was quicker at processing some jobs than my 2010 dual-core PC !
The sense of loss that these genius people and the many hundreds of men and women who executed their plans never received any recognition for their war work is palpable and the book treats that stain on Britain's record in a matter of fact way.
There is, after all, some Bletchley material that has not been declassified. Not yet!
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