This little thing? Oh, it doesn’t matter; here you go

Via Tim, I find a very cool article on the Aussies who worked in Melbourne under Bletchley Park’s command, breaking the Pacific Axis’s codes during WWII [*]. Very cool, and – unlike the (shamefully underfunded, GIVE THEM MONEY) museum at Bletchley, not even remembered at all. Should be.

This obviously gets me onto the history of the computer: so the calculator invented by a Victorian lady and her partner; was ignored. Almost a hundred years later, a very hardcore calculator invented by Polish geniuses to try and not be invaded by the Germans AGAIN was the genesis of the proper modern computer.

So we set up Bletchley for Polish, UK and general Commonwealth geniuses and a supporting cast to work together on similar grounds. And it was aces, and we cracked a bunch of codes, and a vast quantity of moral dilemmas were created for governments (‘do we save the people of Coventry when doing so would risk blowing the D-Day landings, as it would let the Germans know that we know their codes?’ – while there are some aspects of the conduct of Mr Churchill and Mr Harris that I question, anyone who could answer that question with the correct answer, rather than turning into a blubbing wreck at the horribleness of the thing they’d just chosen, is a better man than me), and we started turning the direction of the war, and it was the first time ELECTRONICS WAS FUCKING ACES.

At roughly this point, a gay English genius invented the first electronic computer. Which was even better at doing sums than the electro-mechanical ones that had been going down before. At roughly the same point, the war was won. This was not a coincidence: it’s how WWII went down: we lost at actual battles, then we broke the Nazi and Japanese codes, then we stopped losing, because we knew where they were going to be, and they didn’t always know that we knew this. Both sides had highly skilled coders. Well, the Commonwealth, Germany and Japan had highly skilled coders [**]. But the Commonwealth chaps did better, largely thanks to Poles, geeks and queers. Meanwhile, the USSR won its battles for for, erm, nastier reasons.

Then the war ended, following the USA’s scientific contribution and the USSR’s entry into the War in the East. The USA’s manpower and materiel contribution to the war was unequivocal and without it, the outcome would have been terrible. Its scientific contribution meant that the USSR was scared off occupying Japan, which probably worked out best for even the people of Japan. Hurrah! Brief John & Yoko moment.

So. To recap, the Commonwealth diverted her finest scientific brains and vast resources to Bletchley and its satellites. This secured an extra advantage in close-matched battles, that made the Normandy landings feasible and won the Pacific naval war. After that, everything was bloody, grinding and attrition-y, but history, and WE INVENTED THE FUCKING ELECTRONIC COMPUTER.

You might assume, at this point, as an impartial sane reader from Mars, that you’d be reading this on a computer that ran on Turing-OS, or perhaps on something cutely named for Oxfordshire.

As if. Guess what the British government did at the end of WWII? Set up an endowment of millions of pounds to develop computers for civilian ends? Said to the brilliant scientists who won the war ‘sorry, we’re broke, but why don’t you develop these for civilian ends and you’ll share the money’? Probably the latter, right? The British government was fucking broke at the end of WWII, and it might be a struggle to show the benefits of new technology, so pass on the rights to the folks who sorted it out and let them make money…?


So the USA took this in the intended spirit, right? (fuck knows what the UK’s intended spirit here was, other than the spirit of ‘technological & industrial suicide’) Well, guess which company which was THE KEY TECHNOLOGICAL ENABLER OF THE FUCKING HOLOCAUST they passed the details onto, almost straight away, so they could market their Business Machines Internationally [CHALLENGING ANAGRAMS]. Whilst, just as a reminder, anyone in the UK would have been jailed or hanged for using any of the Bletchley computer secrets in any kind of industrial work.

I don’t blame the US government for this. If I were PM of anywhere, and someone gave me blueprints to THE MOST AMAZING TECHNOLOGY THERE WAS, then I’d immediately give it to every industrial company in my territory. But fuck, it changes one’s take on Attlee somewhat, doesn’t it? Yes, land fit for heroes, NHS, pensions, great, it is well fair. But you didn’t really need to TAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF THE FOLLOWING 100 YEARS AND FUCKING GIVE IT TO THE AMERICANS AND THEN FUCKING MAKE IT ILLEGAL FOR YOUR OWN CITIZENS TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT AT ALL, did you? I mean, really, that wasn’t necessary.

So yeah. End of UK as anything important is exactly equal to the point when the idiots in charge decided that the computer was so irrelevant we might as well give it to the colonial cousins, they understand that sort of thing don’t you know. And the miserable, horrific hounding to death of the one man who did the most to save civilisation in WWII, Mr Turing, was hardly a surprise after that – once the computer had gone to America, what use is someone who invents something that nobody in your own land believes to be worth the square root of fuck all?

[*] That quite good war, before we returned to the pre-1939 model of only fighting wars that were pointless and stupid (apart from the one in 1982, which is only opposed by scumbags who hate democratic self-determination. And yes, I otherwise hate Madame T).

[**] The only USA code that remained unbroken during the war was the Navajo code. This is unsurprising, given the tale of the US Senator who toured the Melbourne coding facilities and then “went back home and told American newspapers how American ingenuity had cracked the Japanese codes”. Whichever member of the Australian government let a FOREIGN BLOODY POLITICIAN tour the facilities really should have been horsewhipped.

8 thoughts on “This little thing? Oh, it doesn’t matter; here you go

  1. ’do we save the people of Coventry at the risk of blowing the D-Day landings by letting the Germans we know they know their codes?’

    Doesn't make sense, do you perhaps mean ’do we save the people of Coventry at the risk of blowing the D-Day landings by letting the Germans know we know their codes?’ or do you mean ’do we save the people of Coventry at the risk of blowing the D-Day landings by letting the Germans know that we know they know our codes?’

  2. It appears to be a British trait to invent amazing things, and then discard them in favour of what we already have, and leave others to develop them and create huge industries around them.

    There appears to be two strands of thought in the UK – the eccentric maverick who thinks outside the box, and the small minded 'We'll keep things as they are thank you very much' attitude of officialdom.

    It has ever been thus. Consider Babbage's attempts to get the UK government to pay to develop his Difference Engines, and (as I was reading recently) the total disinterest shown by the UK War Dept in tracked vehicles, which they trialled as early as 1906, but discarded as unwanted. The inventor (Richard Hornsby & sons) sold the rights to Holts of the USA, which became Caterpillar.

  3. You need to blame Churchill – the tech-transfer agreements go back to 1940 and the Tizard mission.

    Also, Alan Turing didn't invent Colossus, he demonstrated the theoretical possibility of a general-purpose computer. Tommy Flowers actually built an electronic computer. Rather wonderfully, Max Newman showed him Turing's paper, but being a Post Office phone engineer not a logician, he didn't understand a word and cracked on anyway:-)

    (Of course you may have been thinking of Pilot-ACE..)

  4. Mark: the former. Horrid sentence, even without the extraneous verbiage – have adjusted.

    Matthew: yes, but, erm, 'ability to break codes for a bit until the Russians notice' vs 'the computer industry'. I accept a lot of this was rooted in gibbering paranoia about the USSR.

    Alex: I was thinking of ACE, but you're right that I should've credited Flowers as well as Turing. The Newman story is indeed brilliant.

  5. It was that straight working class chap from the Post Office, not the sensitive aesthete. The tale of the post-WW2 computer industry is rather depressing though.

    I think the Turing tale is a bit of a liberal parable for our teachers to pass on to the kids. "He won the war for Britain, and look how they repaid him!"

  6. I think the Turing tale is a bit of a liberal parable for our teachers to pass on to the kids. "He won the war for Britain, and look how they repaid him!"

    Well you're a total moron then.

    …but those of us who have been paying attention knew that already. ("I told you I'm a Taleban fan" – Laban Tall)

    It is beyond question that Turing did extremely valuable cryptanalysis during the war, including desgining the bombe. (Though it is true that it wasn't the one-man show that's sometimes portrayed.)

    It is also true that because of the Official Secrets Act, the extent of that work was not recognized during his life.

    It's also true that he was subsequently persecuted and tormented to the point of suicide, by Laban-Tall-alikes.

    And it's also true that even he'd done nothing whatsoever during the war, he was still one of the 20th century's most wide-ranging and brilliant scientists. See the current Nature special for discussion of his work, including less well-known work.

    Any computer scientist worth their salt will attest that his status as a founding father of the subject is no exaggeration.

    So "look how they repaid him!" would still be the *only possible decent* response to his treatment.

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