I was there at a very dramatic moment of the invitational
International Research Conference on the History of Computing, in
Los Alamos, New Mexico, beginning 1976 June 10. Others
there may have recounted it, but I can add a facet to this jewel
of a revelation.
The conference started on a Thursday, and I had been in New York
City for the very overcrowded National Computer Conference, as
well as for the 18th RAND symposium, run by Fred Gruenberger and
Paul Armer. On Wednesday the 9th I was glad to depart that city to
Albuquerque, with Dr. Heinz Zemanek (President of IFIP, the
International Federation for Information Processing) as my
seatmate. He regaled me with some wonderful stories of early
European computing devices, and various usages in Austria as well, where
he had created a computer history museum. I rented a car at
the airport and drove us to Los Alamos.
I was so weary of New York that I bought steak, canned corn, a metal
grill, charcoal, reading material, and Scotch. I then took myself all
alone to a little mesa East of Los Alamos, and viewed a 1000 foot sheer
drop while I had a wonderful, solitary dinner.
On Friday evening a reception was given by the Director of the Los
Alamos Labs, in the Red Room of the Ray Bradbury Science Museum. That
alone could have warned me of science non-fiction to come. Among the
many that I conversed with was a medium-sized Englishman named Dr. A. W.
M. Coombs, who was so excited about something that he was literally
bouncing up and down. Not being bashful I asked (and he didn't mind)
about the cause of his excitement, and he replied "You'll know tomorrow
morning -- you'll know".
Saturday morning we regathered in the Auditorium of the Physics
Division. I sat third row from the front, a couple seats in from the
right, to get a good view of all the famous attendees. To my
left in the same row, three empty seats intervening, was the bouncy
Englishman, all smiles and laughter. In front of him, two seats to his
left, was Professor Konrad Zuse, who had already told the conference
about his use of relay computers to trim the control surfaces on the V-1
buzz bombs going to London, and how Hitler had refused to allow him to
develop an electronic computer for Germany during World War II (Hitler
said it would not be needed, because the V-2 rockets were going to be
so successful). In the fifth row, again to the left, was Dr. John
Mauchly, of ENIAC fame.
On stage came Prof. Brian Randell, asking if anyone had ever
wondered what Alan Turing had done during World War II? He then
showed slides of a place called Bletchley Park, home base of the
British cryptographic services during that period.
After a while he showed us a slide of a lune-shaped aperture
device he had found in a drawer whilst rummaging around
there. Turned out it was part of a 5000-character-per-second (!) paper
From there he went on to tell the story of Colossus, the world's really
first electronic computer, used to break the German Enigma cipher. Of
course everyone knows about it now. Much has been written on the
subject. And most have agreed that the Allies could very well have lost
the war without the services of Colossus and its successors in
unbuttoning Enigma. But that day at Los Alamos was close to the first
time the British Official Secrets Act had permitted any disclosures.
My decision to keep everyone in view paid off. I looked at Mauchly, who
had thought up until that moment that he was involved in inventing the
world's first electronic computer. I have heard the expression many
times about jaws dropping, but I had really never seen it happen before.
And Zuse -- with a facial expression that could have been anguish. I'll
never know whether it was national, in that Germany lost the war in part
because he was not permitted to build his electronic computer, or if it
was professional, in that he could have taken first honors in the design
of the world's most marvelous tool.
But my English friend (who told us all about it later) was the man doing
the day-to-day running of Colossus. I saw then why he was so
terribly excited. Just imagine the relief of a man who, a third of a
century later, could at last answer his children on "What did you do in
the war, Daddy?"
You can find many discussions and pictures of Colossus and the
German Enigma cipher machine on the WEB,
but always remember that the Web is seldom retrofitted with
stories that happened prior to its existence.
Here are some I found by searching "colossus +enigma":