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How Volunteers Rebuilt WW2 Computers

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the quite-the-enigma dept.

Hardware 51

nk497 writes "A single photograph, scraps of circuit diagrams drawn from memory and a pile of disused components – it isn't much to go on, but from such meager beginnings, engineers rebuilt one of the precursors to the modern computer. The Tunny decryption machine – on display at The Museum of National Computing at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire in the UK – was a feat of engineering both during World War II when it was created, and over the past five years when it was rebuilt by retired BT engineers."

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The correct abbr. is WWII (1)

MetalliQaZ (539913) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146252)

That could be complete B.S. of course, but it looks better to me.

Re:The correct abbr. is WWII (1)

perpenso (1613749) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146402)

That could be complete B.S. of course, but it looks better to me.

There is correct and there is something the audience will understand. Regrettably, sometimes the two are not the same.

Re:The correct abbr. is WWII (1)

tag (22464) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146418)

I thought it was the Second Great War [wikipedia.org] . Either way, amazing tech.

Re:The correct abbr. is WWII (1)

hackertourist (2202674) | more than 2 years ago | (#37151386)

Roman numerals and sans-serif fonts are the combination from Hell. I'd much rather use WW2 instead.

WWII computers? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37146422)

This can't be true , I've been assured by the First International Church of the Bugfuck Insane Space Nutters that NASA invented everything modern from carbon fiber to computers, Velcro, Teflon, the wheel and gravity.

Never mind that they had digital voice encryption in WWII (SIGSALY), that must have been faked, like the Moon landings.

Re:WWII computers? (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146860)

Stop being a bitter old fuck QA. You still want life extension? 'Cuz you don't seem to be enjoying your life.

Re:WWII computers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37147180)

I am laughing everyday at you fruitcakes while I do things you could never do in space, like walk around in a t-shirt, adopt stray cats, go kayaking, eat out and cook, go camping, biking, hiking and meet people. I just wish I could cure you of your mental illnesses, that's how nice I am. I am not enjoying the fact that I can't get through to you.

Re:WWII computers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37151512)

That's... a lot of mental energy to devote to people whom you disagree with, one might even say it's an obsession. That said, are you really so psyched to get up everyday and wear a t-shirt, or go hiking? Some of us would say your life is mundane, and quite boring, and that's leaving your "space nutters" at the door.

Re:WWII computers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37150326)

If Space Nutters are informed about space and technology, how come they have so many deluded beliefs about space and technology?

Re:WWII computers? (1)

slackbheep (1420367) | more than 2 years ago | (#37151518)

Because they're "Nutters"? The argument is hilarious to me as you paint the entirety of those who support more responsible exploration and experimentation in space using unmanned drones, and so forth, As opposed to flying people to this or that body as a PR stunt with the same brush as you paint those who believe we're just a hyper drive away from light saber fights with giant cat men. It's no more honest an argument than to accuse you and your ilk of being luddites or anti-intellectuals for not supporting these specific technologies.

Re:WWII computers? (1)

NikeHerc (694644) | more than 2 years ago | (#37148716)

Never mind that they had digital voice encryption in WWII (SIGSALY)...

In "Hitler's Spies," David Kahn (of "The Codebreakers" fame) says the Germans regularly broke encrypted transatlantic radio voice traffic during WWII. Not sure if this was SIGSALY, as he doesn't mention that moniker.

6 computer labs that gave birth to a digital world (1)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146474)

Sebastian Anthony at Extremtech has written a very nice, seven page article named "6 computer labs that gave birth to the digital world [extremetech.com] ". Bletchley Park is included, as expected.

Re:6 computer labs that gave birth to a digital wo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37148886)

Yes, and he submitted the story to Slashdot, where it appeared two days ago. [slashdot.org]

Re:6 computer labs that gave birth to a digital wo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37149538)

And it was a terrible article with many inaccuracies.

Amazing... (1)

rapturizer (733607) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146538)

What both the original engineers and the restorers accomplished given what hey had to work with.

First digital computer instead of Eniac? (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146560)

OK, so I haven't RTFA... I read someplace this computer (was it called Colossus?) was first digital computer (processer, I/O, memory, etc) and not the USA's ENIAC. And that this was so ultra secret, Churchill ordered it destroyed and team members disbanded with orders to never talk about it. Thus ended the Britain's number one position in computer science and engineering. What if, this did not happen? IBM would never been regarded as the number one computer power, and we would have brought in computer people from England for the Apollo program (they would join the Germans from the V-2 program and the Canadians from the Avro Arrow and Avrocar program to help put US first to the moon). Image that!

Ever hear of Manchester? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37146650)

"Thus ended the Britain's number one position in computer science and engineering. "

The University of Manchester produced the first stored program digital computer "the Baby"
and the English produced many innovative machines through the 50's. It was only in the 60's
that IBM steamrollered the world in computing with the Sytem 360.

"Authenticity" argument . . . (1)

wrencherd (865833) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146766)

. . . is always a trap.

From TFA:

The Tunny is an emulator of the German 12-rotor Lorenz cipher machine, which encrypted messages from the German high command using a new machine-generated code each time

The "original" can always be "just one more iteration back" in history.

Re:First digital computer instead of Eniac? (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147360)

The Tunny wasn't really a computer. It was hard coded logic for one single problem, solving the Lorentz crypto. You could not change it's function without re-engineering the hardware. All it did was to try all possible keys on a given message, and report anything that looked like a possible key. It was more a simple front end to a series of Lorentz machines, which it cranked until something interesting happened. As interesting as it was, it wasn't really what you could classify as a computer.

The Eniac was a plug-programmable computer. You changed it's programming by rewiring it. And it wasn't the first, just more commonly known. The English Baby was the first that stored its program in memory, so it could be reprogrammed without rewiring. And it had a very small memory, it was a test machine after all.

Re:First digital computer instead of Eniac? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37150270)

L.E.O!

Re:First digital computer instead of Eniac? (1)

hackertourist (2202674) | more than 2 years ago | (#37151412)

The 'first computer' debate is complicated; there were several machines that can lay claim, depending on your definition of 'computer'. IIRC Colossus wasn't Turing-complete, see this comparison of 1940s computers. [wikimedia.org]

The US was well on its way developing ENIAC by 1945, I don't see Colossus being published in 1945 making much of a difference.
The first commercially available was British (Ferranti Mk 1), IBM built its lead later on.

The nerd won the second world war ! (2)

JonySuede (1908576) | more than 2 years ago | (#37146758)

The nerd won the second world war and they surly win the third.
But will there be enough nerds left for our side to win ? If we continue to dumb down the curriculum in all levels of education, probably not.

Several million dead Russians disagree with you (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37146852)

And a few million grunts on the ground as well.

Re:Several million dead Russians disagree with you (1)

Bucky24 (1943328) | more than 2 years ago | (#37149654)

Hear hear. However I do agree with parent that the third world war will likely be fought digitally.

Re:The nerd won the second world war ! (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147482)

But if we run after them, grab them around the waist, squeeze hard, and say "I feel your pain", they should all die of embarrassment.

Maybe if we run them through a TSA screening, that would do them in, too.

The nerds also lost the war (1)

perpenso (1613749) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147788)

The nerd won the second world war

The nerds also lost the war, there were nerds on both sides. Nerds were responsible for mass genocide, nerds were responsible for unmanned drones and ballistic missiles landing in civilian neighborhoods, nerds/hackers created manned missiles and manned torpedoes, etc.

But will there be enough nerds left for our side to win

The losing side may have had the smarter nerds. The bad nerds invented the unmanned drone, ballistic missile, jet aircraft, assault rifle, night vision scope, etc. The good nerds had the advantage of laboratories that were not under attack and whose supplies were not disrupted. The bad nerds had their supplies of heavy water for atomic research interrupted by mere grunts on the ground, the good nerds were not slowed down by such activities. The bad nerds were also sheltered and protected by their enemies at the end of the war, and some went on to be the foundation of the US space program.

Re:The nerds also lost the war (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37150384)

Nerds were responsible for mass genocide, nerds were responsible for unmanned drones and ballistic missiles landing in civilian neighborhoods, nerds/hackers created manned missiles and manned torpedoes, etc.

So what you're saying is that Revenge of the Nerds was based on a real story?

Re:The nerds also lost the war (1)

JonySuede (1908576) | more than 2 years ago | (#37157962)

they had more of them but the smarter one joined us to unleash the atomic power.

Re:The nerds also lost the war (1)

JonySuede (1908576) | more than 2 years ago | (#37157976)

and don't forget that (NOT(WIS == INT) AND NOT(INT -> WIS)) == true

Re:The nerd won the second world war ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37150632)

The nerd won the second world war and they surly win the third.
But will there be enough nerds left for our side to win ? If we continue to dumb down the curriculum in all levels of education, probably not.

We may lose but we will get a participation trophy, right?

Re:The nerd won the second world war ! (1)

JonySuede (1908576) | more than 2 years ago | (#37157954)

Of course, stars, rainbows and one unicorn for everyone !

Re:The nerd won the second world war ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37201218)

Despite all the crypto power, for the most part they still needed cribbs in order to decode messages. Getting the cribbs was more the job of the action man; I mean, would you climb down the conning tower ladder of an abandoned, sinking u-boat? I don't think I would. In any case, all intelligences is just a force-multiplier. If you don't have the forces, you don't get the multiplier.

rebuilding from scratch (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37146974)

I always admire people who can rebuild thing with really little information. I gives me hope in humanity.
Maybe the humanity could survive another WW.

Re:rebuilding from scratch (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37147188)

I have a 1919 Triumph Side Valve that is in need of restoration. The engine is rusted solid from being outside to 20+ years.
I things go to plan I'll have it running next year alongside the 1912 Wilkinson Sword I restored a few years ago.
Yes, with enough patience and skill you can rebuild things with very little information.
The guys at Bletchley are worth the title 'Boffins'. Just fantastic.

ex Post Office Apprentice who spent 6 months at BP in 1968 learning how to wire up Strouger Exchanges. I still use 'gpo' Joints when soldering.

Re:rebuilding from scratch (1)

NikeHerc (694644) | more than 2 years ago | (#37148076)

Albert Einstein famously said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Value of lithography (1)

dtmos (447842) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147098)

The article indicates one of the under-appreciated values of printed circuit boards (and, later, integrated circuits): The ability, at one process step (lithography), to connect all circuit components in a system.

Whetter spent 18 months working alongside a volunteer on the wiring alone. “The wiring has to go between the sections, between where the rotor switches are, down to the patch panel and then to the relay control links at the bottom,” he explained. “You don’t just wire from A to B thousands of times. You have to plan it carefully and form what’s known as wiring looms.”

To do that, precise measurements are made of the path the wires take. That’s then mapped out on a large plank of wood, with the wires threaded around nails to create the right shape. “It all sounds rather crude,” Whetter admitted.

The 200 to 400 wires that make up each loom are laced together and then lashed to the main rack, where the soldering work starts. Whetter estimates there are 5,000 solder joints on the Tunny. “It sounds monotonous, but it’s quite an adventure, because you’re never sure if it’s going to work out,” he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t make any serious mistakes.”

Printed circuit board techniques were just being developed [wikipedia.org] at the time the original Tunny was built, and it is interesting to speculate on just how much time could have been saved had that technology been just a few years more advanced, and available to the original designers. Of course, having components designed for PCB use, rather than point-to-point wiring, would have been required, but all that laborious, and error-prone, manual construction of wiring harnesses would have been avoided.

Re:Value of lithography (1)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 2 years ago | (#37153412)

But these were basicaly all prototypes. Wires are easier to change than PCB's.

I'd imagine they saved more time using the techniques and materials they were used to.

(Of course the whole decryption effort became industrial as time went on - They ended up with 100's of bombes, I don't know what technologies they were using to build them towards the end when they were being built in the US).

i herd you liek dupes (1)

HarrySquatter (1698416) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147422)

Great but I believe this story is nearly 3 months old [slashdot.org] by now. Do you guys even bother to do even the simplest of dupe checks?

Valve (2)

Bob-taro (996889) | more than 2 years ago | (#37147922)

IIRC, "valve" is British for "vacuum tube". When the article says the timing circuits are controlled by valves, I'm pretty sure they're talking about the electronic kind.

Re:Valve (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37149298)

The full British term is "Thermionic Valve". This describes the hot cathode (heater) within the vacuum tube and the anode is gated by the grid. A valve has similar properties to Field Effect Transistors (FET) eg. is voltage controlled.

Re:Valve (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | more than 2 years ago | (#37151884)

That is correct. The invention of the first electronic programmable computer was kept a secret even after the way, which is why the media back in the late 1940s claimed it was an American invention. In actual fact we (UK) did it first, but because the US one was the first to go public it defined a lot of the language and conventions for computers.

Re:Valve (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37154182)

Yes except the Bletchley thingummy is not a programmable computer and Konrad Zuse had not only built a programmable one before it but had been issued patents as well

Alan Turing did not consider it a full computer and if anyone knew how it worked it would be him

And it did not win the war since it could only decipher low level machines, the more complex machines like the one on display in Bletchley were never cracked and it was actually those that were used to send military secrets the low level ones were only used for battlefield information, e.g. info that had a lifetime of 3 hours or less.

To put it into perspective, we have problems deciphering messages encoded on the high level machines today, to claim that they were cracked by magic in the 1940's is dishonesty bordering on the outrageous, I live about a mile from the museum and after looking at the display I can only describe it as propaganda and every time I walk past the museum signs it leaves a gall like taste in my mouth.

Inane nationalistic propaganda for the clueless xenophobe, not surprised to see that /. is full of those

Those wire harnesses (1)

CosaNostra Pizza Inc (1299163) | more than 2 years ago | (#37148356)

Just looking at all the wire used in those wire harnesses gives me a headache.

Re:Those wire harnesses (1)

Curmudgeonlyoldbloke (850482) | more than 2 years ago | (#37153026)

Clearly where the designers of my old Peugeot got their ideas from.

Re:Those wire harnesses (1)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 2 years ago | (#37153354)

Just looking at all the wire used in those wire harnesses gives me a headache.

When I worked at Plessey's Edge Lane, Liverpool, works in 1981 there were still women up on the fourth floor making these things while we software people downstairs next door were working to put them out of a job.

Amazing (1)

p51d007 (656414) | more than 2 years ago | (#37148966)

Technology....vacuum tubes (valves), hundreds of feet of wire, mechanical connections to break a 5 rotor cypher. Now, 70 years later, you can do the same thing basically with a small computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone.

Re:Amazing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37151930)

A few arduinos would be more powerful than these early computers.

bletchley is awesome (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37149364)

just 45 minutes out of london on the london midland intercity train. i saw all this stuff up close and met tony sale, the guy who rebuilt collossus. i also saw a bunch of old grey haired engineers working on a turing bombe replica. a totally worth it day excursion if you're ever in london, even if the food at the cafeteria is crap.

Go see them (2)

hackertourist (2202674) | more than 2 years ago | (#37151442)

If there's one place you should visit when you're in the UK, it's Bletchley Park [bletchleypark.org.uk] .
Seeing the Colossus and their other rebuilt equipment in action is fabulous, and even better, some of the tour guides are the same guys who rebuilt these machines. More knowledgeable than that they don't come.

Go to the source (1)

Eunuchswear (210685) | more than 2 years ago | (#37153318)

The National Museum of Computing [tnmoc.org]

See also one man bravely trying to restart a 1980's mainframe without letting all the magic smoke escape and many other death defying feats.

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