Colossus faces off against PCs in code-breaking challenge
Valves vs transistors grudge match
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 today to mark the launch of the the fledgling National Museum of Computing.
Colossus has been put up against PCs in a code-breaking challenge. The match is more equal than it may seem at first sight- Colossus is a single-function device, and its speed at breaking codes rivals that of modern PCs.
Colossus is credited by some with shortening the war by months. It was capable of breaking messages within hours, revealing details of Germany's battle plans in the process.
The Mark I began operating in January 1944, and was succeeded in June the same year by the Mark II. Ten Mark II machines were built. Each machine featured 2,000 valves and was the size of a small lorry.
The rebuilt Colossus Mark II is being put to work deciphering a teleprinter message transmitted by radio from Paderborn in Germany, after it was first encrypted by one of the original Lorenz cipher machines used by the German High Command during World War II.
The Paderborn transmissions are being intercepted at Bletchley Park by two groups of amateur codebreakers, one using modern equipment and PCs and the other using World War II technology. Other amateur code breakers were also invited to join the challenge to intercept the transmission and to try to beat Colossus in cracking the 1938 Lorenz SZ42 encrypted message.
The challenge almost failed to get off the ground after the main transformer of the Lorenz machine developed a fault and the machine malfunctioned when it was tested on Wednesday. Fortunately, the team was able to repair the aging kit and return the cipher machine to service, fittingly in Bletchley Park’s Block H, the same buildings its predecessors were housed in during the war.
Andy Clark, a director and trustee at the National Museum of Computing, told El Reg that early attempts to intercept the transmissions using wartime radio equipment were hampered by "a lot of interference". So the Bletchley code-breakers were unable to get a decent copy until around 4.30pm. "We're getting unconfirmed reports that those with modern receivers, and using computers, have at least a partial result. We'll be starting Colossus off at 7.30am tomorrow morning," he said.
The code-breaking challenge marks the completion of the successful rebuild of Colossus and the start of a major fund-raising drive for the fledgling National Museum of Computing. 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.
The recreated Colossus is on public display at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. This marks the fruits of a 14-year rebuilding project led by Tony Sale, a founder of the emerging Museum. The trustees of the Museum hope to raise £6m in investments to fully establish and run the facility. ®
seems they can break codes but can't write code...
from the cipher text section of the national computer museum site:
challenge1 = http://www.tnmoc.org/CipherText/Challenge1.txt
challenge2 = http://www.tnmoc.org/CipherText/Challenge2.txt
challenge3 = http://www.tnmoc.org/CioherText/Challenge2,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 ;)
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.
Re: Very cool
"Kudos for bringing Collosus back online"
I've got some kudos in reserve for when they get Linux running on it :-)