[SIGCIS-Members] Colossus and the lone genius

thomas.haigh at gmail.com thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Thu Oct 22 20:58:42 PDT 2020


Thanks Barbara,

 

This reminds me that I didn’t share with SIGCIS the recent publication of a paper, “Contextualizing Colossus” written with Mark Priestley. This came out in the July issue of Technology and Culture. It’s a companion to our Finn Prize winning paper “Colossus and Programmability,” but while the earlier paper looked at the affordances of Colossus this one is about the personal and institutional relationships that produced it. That’s very much an attack on the “lone genius” idea of innovation, which attributes the WWII code-breaking machine Colossus machines to the lone genius of Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers (except for very lazy journalists who attribute them Alan Turing, on the assumption that he was responsible for anything to do with Bletchley Park).

 

Flowers is usually said to have built the first Colossus despite the knee-jerk opposition of code breakers and Bletchley Park leaders who never believed electronics could work, building it secretly and paying for supplies out of his own pocket. He’s then supposed to have delivered it to Bletchley Park unexpectedly, to the bemusement of codebreakers who took weeks to understand its importance. According to one particularly enthusiastic myth-maker, if Churchill hadn’t perversely decided to smash the machines after the war, Britain would have been a world leader in computing and the Internet would have been created a decade before it actually was.

 

None of that is true, of course. Here’s the abstract of our paper: The Bletchley Park codebreaking center sits close to the heart of Britain’s collective sense of historical greatness. Historians view it as a highly successful but largely ad-hoc institutional response to novel cryptographic challenges, depicting both its reliance on elite mathematicians and a large labor force as ruptures with peacetime practice. In contrast, we suggest that underpinning Bletchley Park’s success were institutional capabilities established in the pre-war British state. We focus on the celebrated “Colossus” electronic codebreaking devices as one element of a highly successful institutional collaboration between Bletchley Park, where they were used, and the Post Office research station at Dollis Hill where they were designed and built. We reveal the development of a productive institutional partnership sponsored at the highest levels of government and supported by managers on both sides, correcting claims that Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers built the first machine at his own expense without the support or knowledge of Bletchley Park’s managers.

 

If you have institutional access, or a SHOT membership, you can find the paper at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/763592

If not, I have a preprint available at https://tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/ColossusInContextPreprint.pdf

 

Best wishes,

 

Tom

 

Bonus for historians of capitalism: According to Wikipedia “Flowers applied for a loan from the Bank of England to build another machine like Colossus but was denied the loan because the bank did not believe that such a machine could work.[22] He could not argue that he had already designed and built many of these machines because his work on Colossus was covered by the Official Secrets Act.” You might wonder how much of a private market existing for large scale cryptanalytic machines, or whether the government would permit their sale. But more to the point, why is a central bank offering small business loans? I suspect whoever wrote this had not heard of any other British banks and did not understand that the Bank of England is not the local equivalent of the Bank of America.

 

Wikipedia sources this truly odd claim to a web page composed largely of text cut and pasted from other online sources https://sldinfo.com/2018/12/remembering-tommy-flowers-the-inventor-of-the-programmable-computer-and-making-a-key-contribution-to-a-war-winning-ap/, which cites it in turn to a content-farm style site apparently sourced from Wikipedia https://interestingengineering.com/tommy-flowers-the-man-who-built-colossus. That offers no source at all for the claim. 

 

The sentences have been in the Wikipedia article since at least 2013, and only recently received a supporting citation. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tommy_Flowers <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tommy_Flowers&oldid=539287753> &oldid=539287753 Hence this is almost certainly another one of those cases where a ridiculous idea stayed on a Wikipedia page long enough to be copied, producing sources that were later cited to support it. 

 

From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> On Behalf Of Barbara B Walker
Sent: Thursday, October 22, 2020 10:42 AM
To: members at lists.sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Debunking the myth of individual genius

 

Hi, everybody,

 

Hope everyone is safe and well.

 

Here is an article on the importance of looking beyond the mythologies and cults of genius in the history of science and tech.

 

https://undark.org/2020/10/22/the-fiction-of-individual-genius/

 

However, I would argue that in computer history as everywhere else in the history of science and tech, debunking is not enough – we must understand the reasons, cultures and process of cult-formation and myth-making that plays such an influential role in our understanding of the past. That’s something I’m exploring in an article on John von Neumann that I recently submitted for publication review (“Creation Myths”). Am also looking at the formation of political personality cults in a seminar I am teaching this semester.

 

Barbara Walker

 

 

Barbara Walker 

Associate Professor

Department of History/308

University of Nevada, Reno

Reno NV 89557 

 

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