back to article Colossus faces off against PCs in code-breaking challenge

Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital computer, is back at work cracking codes at Bletchley Park for the first time in more than 60 years. Colossus was developed by Britain in World War II to crack encrypted German messages. After years of painstaking restoration work a recreation of the machine returned to action …


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  1. Brian Miller

    Churchill set IT back

    The Brits could have dominated the computing industry if Churchill had siezed upon the opportunity to flog the machine to universities and businesses. Unfortunately he chose to have the machine destroyed, and subsequently threw away a wonderful advancement.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Which Operating System?

    If Colussus is running Windoze then it'll lose the race. And if it is running Vista then those pesky Germans will be landing at Dover at 7am tomorrow morning.

    (P.S. I know some of the readers are hard of hearing - I know Windoze wasn't created until decades later - THIS IS A JOKE!!!! AND SO IS VISTA!!!!)

  3. The Other Steve
    Thumb Up

    Festival of misconceptions (with the best of intentions)

    I'm sure this is not El Reg's fault, because the press release from BP says much the same, but :

    1) Colossus was not used to dechiper messages, it was used for wheel setting, and later wheel breaking, of the psi and chi wheels. The Tunny machine, another product of the ubergeeks in the Newmanry, did the actual deciphering

    2) Not all of the Colossus MK IIs were 'destroyed' at the end of the war, most of them were dismantled and the parts returned to GPO stores, but at least one was removed to the new GCHQ headquarters.

    I'm sure the BP press release is just glossing over this for the sake of simplicity, but these are the (geeky) facts, and anyone lucky enough to be able to pop down to BP and have a chat with the amazing Tony Sale*, or indeed any of the other generally excellent guys and girls who run the show can have these and any other misconceptions sorted out sharpish while being utterly gobsmacked at the stuff on show.

    Go there. If you are any kind of geek, you will get tingly pants. If you can arrange it, go on reunion day, but wear something that won't show stains.

    If I had 6 million quid, I'd give it to the BP Trust in a flash.

  4. Sceptical Bastard

    What! No 'boffins'?

    I can barely believe El Reg wrote a story about Bletchley Park without using the word 'boffins'! Shame on you!

    Incidentally, I heard a chap on the radio saying the present code-breaking chaps based at GCHQ Cheltenham are going to see if they can beat Collossus. Personally, I rather hope they lose - I like the idea of a box of valves and some paper tape trouncing ten zillion transistors.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Modern PC

    It's a PII laptop!!

  6. Hugh McGuinness
    Thumb Down

    the world’s first programmable digital computer?

    What about Konrad Zuse's Z3, in 1941?

    According to "it was a binary 64-bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays".

    Or doesn't he count because his side lost?

  7. Solomon Grundy
    Thumb Up


    This is a good spend of money. This is an actual comparison of how far technology has advanced since WWII. Maybe the old tech is better, maybe not, but it sure will be nice to see the results - not marketing smack about "under the line productivity enhancements and reductions in specialized HR accelerating the global economy through best-shore selectivity and community involvement", or whatever execuspeak is thrown around in the tech world.

  8. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Good Un

    This an excellent candidate for lottery funding,

    ... so probably won't get any.

  9. Matt Bucknall

    All your base are belong to us...

    "Fortunately, the team were able to repair the aging kit and put the cipher machine is back in service"

    "Andy Clark, a direcor and trustee at the National Museum of Computing"

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why did Churchill order the original device destroyed?

    "It's the first time that Colossus has been used since then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of the top-secret machine following the end of World War II."

    Why did he want it destroyed? Was it simply a question of economics, and they needed the valves for something else, or was there some other reason?

  11. Adrian Esdaile

    Message has been decrypted!

    It read:

    Greetings friend,

    My excellent name is Randolph M'bogo, and god-willing I am the vice-president of the 1st National Bank of Nigeria...

  12. Anonymous Coward

    @ Sceptical Bastard

    >> ...the present code-breaking chaps based at GCHQ Cheltenham are going to see if they can beat Collossus. Personally, I rather hope they lose...

    Personally, I hope they win. End transmission.

  13. MG

    Have a go....


  14. Jeff Williams

    Very cool

    Kudos for bringing Collosus back online.Seems IT has reached a koda!

  15. Martin Beckett Silver badge

    Why did Churchill order the original device destroyed?

    After the war we handed out a lot of enigma machines to our (mostly commonwealth) friends saying - use these they are really secure we couldn't break them - Scout's honour!

    It was also to disguise the progress mechanicla code breaking had made so that peopel wouldn't look too hard at improving their exisiting systems.

  16. Peter Fairbrother

    Re: Why did Churchill order the original device destroyed?

    "Why did he want it destroyed? Was it simply a question of economics, and they needed the valves for something else, or was there some other reason?"

    Churchill ordered them dismantled/hidden because he wanted to keep the achievements at Bletchley secret, mostly the fact that Enigma had been cracked.

    The Allies then sold Enigmas to many other governments after the war. They were in use until about 1970 or so.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Brian Miller

    > [Churchill] subsequently threw away a wonderful advancement.

    But it's what he did--time and time again. Great military leader, but crap politician: the UK would be much stronger today without his rather long track record of giving away valuable technology, binning it or otherwise ditching home-grown stuff in favour of (often inferior and expensive) foreign developments.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Re: Very cool

    "Kudos for bringing Collosus back online"


    I've got some kudos in reserve for when they get Linux running on it :-)

  19. The Other Steve

    And another thing(s)

    It's not really "the first time that Colossus has been used since then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of the top-secret machine following the end of World War II." either.

    I stood in Hut H on a BP reunion day a couple of years back and watched Tony Sale demonstrate the rebuild running (along with many other people). Got photos and everything.

    And yet, I split hairs, I see what they mean, and it's still a great project which deserves our support.

    Honestly, I could bang on all day about how knee tremblingly fantastic it is to see the beast run, but don't take my word for it, go see it for yourself.

    @Brian Miller :

    I see your point, but to be fair the Colossus wasn't really useful to anyone not involved in what BP was doing. Although it enjoys a fair degree of flexibility vis a vis programming, it really is a very special purpose machine. Also, the skills and technologies were not lost. Post WWII boffins from BP went into academia and built machines.

    Good and co at Manchester for instance, where they designed and built the Manchester Mk I (or Baby, which has also been restored and runs every Tuesday, IIRC), which went on to become the Ferranti Mk I, and so on. There was Lyons' incredible LEO project. Any lack of competitive commercial lead that the UK exhibited in this field was down to bog standard lack of vision on behalf of UK.PLC. (And possibly funding, which was thin on the ground after the war)

    And don't forget, absolute secrecy was Churchill's overriding motivator where GC&CS, BP and subsequently GCHQ were concerned. Having seen what a strategic advantage was granted by reading peoples traffic without them knowing, he was unwilling to sacrifice it at any cost. Particularly with the cold war looming large.

    Oh and @AC :

    "It's a PII laptop!!"

    Yes, Tony Sale's Thinkpad IIRC, but don't you see how incredible it is that a machine that was delivered in 1943 is actually in with a chance of outperforming a PII ? Seriously, tremble before it's mighty glory.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    seems they can break codes but can't write code...

    from the cipher text section of the national computer museum site:

    challenge1 =

    challenge2 =

    challenge3 =,txt

    can anyone else spot the coding error?

    also its probably worth noting that colossus has more in common with a ps2 than a p2... the ps2 is also a single purpose processing unit: game data in, video out in the same was as colossus is cypher text in, wheel settings out. the p2 by comparison is a jack of all trades (and master of none in the eyes of mac fans ;)

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