Monday, January 24, 2011

Colossus Computer

Digital Computers
Colossus computer

The Colossus machines were electronic computing devices used by British codebreakers to help read encrypted German messages during World War II. These were the world's first programmable, digital, electronic, computing devices. They used vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to perform the calculations.

Colossus was designed by engineer Tommy Flowers with input from Harry Fensom, Allen Coombs, Sid Broadhurst and Bill Chandler[1] at the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill to solve a problem posed by mathematician Max Newman at Bletchley Park. The prototype, Colossus Mark 1, was shown to be working in December 1943 and was operational at Bletchley Park by February 1944. An improved Colossus Mark 2 first worked on 1 June 1944, just in time for the Normandy Landings. Ten Colossi were in use by the end of the war.

The Colossus computers were used to help decipher teleprinter messages which had been encrypted using the Lorenz SZ40/42 machine—British codebreakers referred to encrypted German teleprinter traffic as "Fish" and called the SZ40/42 machine and its traffic "Tunny". Colossus compared two data streams, counting each match based on a programmable Boolean function. The encrypted message was read at high speed from a paper tape. The other stream was generated internally, and was an electronic simulation of the Lorenz machine at various trial settings. If the match count for a setting was above a certain threshold, it would be sent as output to an electric typewriter.

The Colossus was used to find possible key combinations for the Lorenz machines – rather than decrypting an intercepted message in its entirety.

In spite of the destruction of the Colossus hardware and blueprints as part of the effort to maintain a project secrecy that was kept up into the 1970s—a secrecy that deprived some of the Colossus creators of credit for their pioneering advancements in electronic digital computing during their lifetimes—a functional replica of a Colossus computer was completed in 2007.

Purpose and origins
The Colossus computers were used in the cryptanalysis of high-level German communications, messages which had been encrypted using the Lorenz SZ 40/42 cipher machine; part of the operation of Colossus was to emulate the electromechanical Lorenz machine electronically. To encrypt a message with the Lorenz machine, the plaintext was combined with a stream of key bits, grouped in fives. The keystream was generated using twelve pinwheels: five were termed (by the British) ? ("chi") wheels, another five ? ("psi") wheels, and the remaining two the "motor wheels". The ? wheels stepped regularly with each letter that was encrypted, while the ? wheels stepped irregularly, controlled by the motor wheels.

Bill Tutte, a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park, discovered that the keystream produced by the machine exhibited statistical biases deviating from random, and that these biases could be used to break the cipher and read messages. In order to read messages, there were two tasks that needed to be performed. The first task was wheel breaking, which was discovering the pin patterns for all the wheels. These patterns were set up once on the Lorenz machine and then used for a fixed period of time and for a number of different messages. The second task was wheel setting, which could be attempted once the pin patterns were known. Each message encrypted using Lorenz was enciphered at a different start position for the wheels. The process of wheel setting found the start position for a message. Initially Colossus was used to help with wheel setting, but later it was found it could also be adapted to the process of wheel breaking as well.

Colossus was developed for the Newmanry, the section at Bletchley Park responsible for machine methods against the Lorenz machine, headed by the mathematician Max Newman. It arose out of a prior project which produced a special purpose opto-mechanical comparator and counting machine called "Heath Robinson".

The main problems with the Heath Robinson were the relative slowness of electro-mechanical relays and the difficulty of synchronising two paper tapes, one punched with the enciphered message, the other representing the patterns produced by the wheels of the Lorenz machine. The tapes tended to stretch when being read at some 2000 characters per second, resulting in unreliable counts. Tommy Flowers of the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill was called in to look into the design of the Robinson’s combining unit. He was not impressed with the machines and, at his own initiative, designed an electronic machine which stored the data from one of the tapes internally. He presented this design to Max Newman in February 1943, but the idea that the one to two thousand thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) proposed, could work together reliably was greeted with scepticism, so more Robinsons were ordered from Dollis Hill. Flowers, however, persisted with the idea and obtained support from the Director of the Research Station.

Design and operation

Colossus used state-of-the-art vacuum tubes (thermionic valves), thyratrons and photomultipliers to optically read a paper tape and then applied a programmable logical function to every character, counting how often this function returned "true". Although machines with many valves were known to have high failure rates, it was recognised that valve failures occurred most frequently with the current surge when powering up, so the Colossus machines, once turned on, were never powered down unless they malfunctioned.

Colossus was the first of the electronic digital machines with programmability, albeit limited in modern terms. It was not, however, a fully general Turing-complete computer, even though Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park. It was not then realized that Turing completeness was significant; most of the other pioneering modern computing machines were also not Turing complete (e.g. the Atanasoff–Berry Computer, the Harvard Mark I electro-mechanical relay machine, the Bell Labs relay machines (by George Stibitz et al.), or the first designs of Konrad Zuse). The notion of a computer as a general purpose machine—that is, as more than a calculator devoted to solving difficult but specific problems—would not become prominent for several years.

Colossus was preceded by several computers, many of them first in some category. Zuse's Z3 was the first functional fully program-controlled computer, and was based on electromechanical relays, as were the (less advanced) Bell Labs machines of the late 1930s (George Stibitz, et al.). The Atanasoff–Berry Computer was electronic and binary (digital) but not programmable. Assorted analog computers were semiprogrammable; some of these much predated the 1930s (e.g., Vannevar Bush). Babbage's Analytical engine design predated all these (in the mid-19th century), it was a decimal, programmable, entirely mechanical construction—but was only partially built and never functioned during Babbage's lifetime (the first complete mechanical Difference engine No. 2, built in 1991, does work however). Colossus was the first combining digital, (partially) programmable, and electronic. The first fully programmable digital electronic computer was the ENIAC which was completed in 1946.