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Colossus World War Two code-breaking machine celebrates 70th birthday

05 Feb 2014
Colossus code breaking machine at The National Museum of Computing

The Colossus computer that helped decipher German messages during the Second World War celebrates its 70th birthday on Wednesday, as The National Museum of Computing marks its place in IT history.

The machine first sprang into life on 5 February 1944 when it was let loose on messages that had been sent by German units and encrypted using the Lorenz machine. The Colossus – designed by engineer called Tommy Flowers who worked for the telecoms division of the General Post Office, which later became BT – was able to crack these codes fast.

It had the ability to read 5,000 characters a second, far in advance of anything else available at that time, and this meant it could take just four hours for it to find the first key in a code, the most important part in any code-breaking.

By the end of the war, it is estimated that Colossus had deciphered 63 million characters of German messages, helping shorten the war and save countless lives. Despite this, its existence was kept secret for 30 years after the war.

The machine certainly earned its name: it was huge. It measured 7ft high, 17ft wide and 11ft deep, weighed five tonnes and had 7km of internal wiring.

To celebrate the work of Colossus, Bletchley Park veterans who worked on the machine will attend a special event that will see a complete working replica of the machine intercept and decrypt a message.

Tim Reynolds, chair of The National Museum of Computing, said honouring the work of Colossus and the people behind its success, was vital to ensure its legacy is remembered in UK history.

"The achievements of those who worked at Bletchley Park are humbling. 5 February will be a proud day for the museum to host the Colossus and veterans who are able to make the journey today. This day is in honour of all the men and women who worked on breaking the Lorenz cipher."

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Dan Worth
About

Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal

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