At the top of the British electronic intelligence agency is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a very public entity whose circular building can easily be found by any inquisitive soul prepared to drive just off the A40 in Cheltenham which is about two hours west of London. But due to the nature of its work it is also one of the most secretive of UK agencies, from which very little public information is released. With over a century of history behind it and with some truly groundbreaking inventions under its belt it is rumoured to maintain a clandestine technology museum that would rewrite a few history books and no doubt fascinate the Hackaday readership.
Perhaps the most famous of all its secrets was the wartime Colossus, the first all-electronic stored program digital computer, which took an unauthorised book in the 1970s to bring to public attention. Otherwise its historical artifacts have been tantalisingly out-of-reach, hinted at but never shown.
A temporary exhibition at the Science Museum in London then should be a must-visit for anyone with an interest in clandestine technology. Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security occupies the basement gallery, and includes among other exhibits a fascinating selection of artifacts from the Government agency. On a trip to London I met up with a friend, and we went along to take a look.
Wherever you may live in the world, who do you wish to smile upon you and deliver good fortune? You may be surprised to discover that for a significant number of Brits this role is taken by someone called [Ernie].
What, [Jim Henson]’s Ernie from Sesame Street‘s famous duo Bert and Ernie? Sadly not, because the owner of a [Rubber Duckie] can’t offer you the chance of a million quid every month. Instead, [Ernie] is a computer that has been anthropomorphised in the national imagination. More properly referred to as E.R.N.I.E, for Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, he is the machine that picks the winning bond numbers for the Premium Bonds, a lottery investment scheme run by the British Government.
Brits have been able to buy £1 bonds, up to 50,000 of them today, since the 1950s, and every month they are entered into a drawing from which ERNIE picks the winners. The top two prizes are a million pounds, but for most bond holders the best they can hope for is the occasional £25 cheque. Premium Bonds are often bought for young children so a lot of Brits will have a few, often completely forgotten. Prizes never expire, so if you are the holder of old bonds you should consider asking National Savings and Investments whether anything is owed to you.
The Great Grandfather of Premium Bond Drawings
The current ERNIE is the fourth-generation model, but our attention today is on its 1950s ancestor. In a way it’s the most interesting of the machines because it has an unusual pedigree, being a creation of the Post Office Research Station, at Dollis Hill, London. As such it came from the lab of the Colossus engineer [Tommy Flowers], and is described as being a descendant of the now-famous but then still top-secret first digital computer used by the World War Two codebreakers. It’s thus a fascinating study for the student of computer history as well as for its role in British postwar social history, because it represents the only glimpse (had they known it at the time) that the British public had of the technology that had helped them so much a decade earlier.
A significant effort was made to ensure that the draw was truly random, and the solution employed by [Flowers] and his team was thoroughly tested before each draw. The thermionic noise generated across a neon tube was sampled, and this random voltage delivered the truly random numbers used to generate the winning bond numbers. The machine’s construction is extremely reminiscent of its wartime predecessor, however it is as well to bear in mind that it owes this to the standard racking and paint used in British telephone exchanges of the day. Gone though are the octal tubes, and in their place are their more familiar miniature successors.
We have two films for you showing this incarnation of ERNIE in action. The first is a National Savings promotional film which explains ERNIE’s purpose, while the second shows us the Minister of the time starting the first draw. Believe it or not, this was a cause of major national excitement at the time.
When the story of an invention is repeated as Received Opinion for the younger generation it is so often presented as a single one-off event, with a named inventor. Before the event there was no invention, then as if by magic it was there. That apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, or Archimedes overflowing his bath, you’ve heard the stories. The inventor’s name will sometimes differ depending on which country you are in when you hear the story, which provides an insight into the flaws in the simple invention tales. The truth is in so many cases an invention does not have a single Eureka moment, instead the named inventor builds on the work of so many others who have gone before and is the lucky engineer or scientist whose ideas result in the magic breakthrough before anyone else’s.
The history of computing is no exception, with many steps along the path that has given us the devices we rely on for so much today. Blaise Pascal’s 17th century French mechanical calculator, Charles Babbage and Ada, Countess Lovelace’s work in 19th century Britain, Herman Hollerith’s American tabulators at the end of that century, or Konrad Zuse’s work in prewar Germany represent just a few of them.
So if we are to search for an inventor in this field we have to be a little more specific than “Who invented the first computer?”, because there are so many candidates. If we restrict the question to “Who invented the first programmable electronic digital computer?” we have a much simpler answer, because we have ample evidence of the machine in question. The Received Opinion answer is therefore “The first programmable electronic digital computer was Colossus, invented at Bletchley Park in World War Two by Alan Turing to break the Nazi Enigma codes, and it was kept secret until the 1970s”.
It’s such a temptingly perfect soundbite laden with pluck and derring-do that could so easily be taken from a 1950s Eagle comic, isn’t it. Unfortunately it contains such significant untruths as to be rendered useless. Colossus is the computer you are looking for, it was developed in World War Two and kept secret for many years afterwards, but the rest of the Received Opinion answer is false. It wasn’t invented at Bletchley, its job was not the Enigma work, and most surprisingly Alan Turing’s direct involvement was only peripheral. The real story is much more interesting.
We’ve seen a lot of Enigma builds here at Hackaday — the World War II era encryption machine captured our readers’ imaginations. But perhaps the more important machines to come out of cryptanalysis during that era were Turing’s electromechanical Bombe, because it cracked Enigma, and the vacuum-tube-based Colossus, because it is one of the first programmable electronic digital computers.
[Ben]’s build combines his explorations into old-school cryptanalysis with a practical learning project for FPGAs. If you’re interested in either of the above, give it a look. You can start out with his Python implementations of Colossus to get your foot in the door, and then move on to his GitHub repository for the FPGA nitty-gritty.
It’s also a cool example of a use for the XuLA2 FPGA board and its companion StickIt board that plug straight into a Raspberry Pi for programming and support. We haven’t seen many projects using these since we first heard about them in 2012. This VirtualBoy hack jumped out at us, however. It looks like a nice platform. Anyone else out there using one?
It’s a madhouse already at the 2011 Bay Area Maker Faire. Though the show doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, Friday is “Education Day”, a special preview for local schools. As makers scramble to set up their displays, a thousand impressionable young minds seek the most cacophonous mixture of taiko drumming, ArcAttack’s musical Tesla coils, and the beeping and booping of the R2-D2 Builder’s Club.
Maker Faire is returning for its sixth year at the San Mateo Event Center, and is shaping up to be bigger and zanier than ever. We’ll do our best to provide some live updates through the weekend. As always, check out the official site for pointers on hours, admission, parking and especially public transit options.
(Photo: Colossus, the death-defying centerpiece of the Midway area of the Faire.)