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Amateur code breaker honoured for defeating Colossus

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An amateur cryptographer from Germany who beat the world’s first programmable digital computer Colossus in a code-breaking challenge has been honoured for his achievement.

Joachim Schueth cracked a message sent using the World War II cypher in just 46 seconds using a modern laptop and a program he wrote in ADA to snag the accolade. The code-breaking challenge was set in November to mark the opening of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. By comparison, a rebuilt version of Colossus took three hours and 35 minutes to break the code.

Schueth received a valve from the Colossus machine at a prize for beating all comers in the challenge at a ceremony in Bletchley Park this week. The codebreaker acknowledged he had an unfair advantage against computer historians who rebuilt Colossus in deciphering a message encoded with a Lorenz S42 machine, which was used by German high command during the war, and transmitted by a team of radio enthusiasts from Paderborn, Germany.

"It was unfair because I was using a modern PC, while Colossus was created more than 60 years ago," Schueth told the BBC. "It really is astonishing and humbling that the world's first programmable digital computer was created in the 1940s."

Tony Sale, who devoted 14 years to the project of rebuilding the WWII forerunner to modern PCs, said: "Joachim really showed how things have advanced from the days of Colossus."

"As well as recapturing the excitement that the Bletchley Park code breakers must have felt, the Cipher Challenge has more importantly highlighted the magnitude of their achievement, their tenacity and their ingenuity," he added.

The recreated Colossus machine is on display at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. The ten Colossi built during the war are credited with shortening the conflict and saving lives by giving Allied forces a vital intelligence edge on troop movements against Germany from around the time of the Normandy landings until the end of the war. Churchill ordered each of the machines to be disassembled after the war in order to keep their design secret. ®

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