Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Heath Robinson Museum and the Bletchley Women Code-Breakers

Photos copyright Geoff Robinson.

The Daily Mail has a heartwarming article about Joanna Chorley, who was one of the secret "Bletchley Circle" female code-breakers during World War 2. Above, unseen for about 70 years (kept hidden in her bureau), is a photo of them. Ms. Chorley stands on the far right.

The top secret group operated a primitive computer, named "Colossus" and used it to assist in decoding enemy messages. It's Colossus' 70th birthday tomorrow.

"'Colossus' was very big and took up half a room, but it wasn’t too noisy, it chugged away to itself."

What I didn't know until today, was that the predecessors of the machine -- an even more primitive primitive computer -- were electro-mechanical "Robinson" machines, which were named after the cartoonist Heath Robinson. But he never knew that!

Heath Robinson was best known as a sort of British Rube Goldberg; drawing elaborate contraptions to accomplish simple and sometimes odd jobs, like the above spaghetti stretching mechanism. This was a way, during rationing, to extend the rationed pasta. I love the look on the diner's face. So happy!

Anyway, the elaborate machine 

"… consisted of three parts: a frame onto which two teleprinter paper tapes were mounted -- weaving their way through a convoluted network of reels -- and read optically; a rack containing counters and another rack for valved logic circuits. 
"It was a tricky system: the teleprinter tape had to be prepared meticulously, requiring two very long loops of the paper … to be fed into the machine, woven around a sequence of spools. The second tape had to be precisely one character longer than the first so that it would automatically change the punched patterns by one position after completing a single circuit of the tapes. Keeping these tapes synchronised when they were moving at over 1,000 characters a second was a major challenge, and they would often tear or stretch." -- "Heath Robinson: the unsung hero of British eccentricity and innovation" by Olivia Solon,

Of course, the reason Mr. Robinson never knew is that he died in 1944, when the whole Bletchley project was top secret. That's too bad!

Anyway, do take a look at the link above. They are raising funds for a Heath Robinson Museum and are close the their goal.

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