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Review - Colossus - The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers - B. Jack Copeland et al

 

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Once upon a time the work of Bletchley Park was so secret that the British Government pretended it didn't exist. Even after the end of the war this pretence went on, and it is only thanks to recent declassification that the full story is possible to tell. Well, actually, even now it's not possible - because with what the history of science must surely regard as vandalism, practically everything from the trail blazing Colossus computers to the actual decoded messages were destroyed in a fit of security consciousness that comes worryingly close to paranoia.

A fair amount has already been written about the work on cracking the codes of the German Enigma machines - what is only newly revealed is the attack on the more complex Tunny machines, and the details of the computing factory at Bletchley Park, where ten Colossus computers were eventually deployed against the German codes.

To anyone interested in the history of codebreaking, or the very early days of computing, this book is going to be absolutely fascinating. It's less easy to recommend it as a general popular science book. It consists of a series of essays by different authors, so has limited consistency of style and readability. And though some of the essays, including that by the kingpin of the Colossus, Thomas Flowers, are readable and as much populated with the people of Bletchley Park as the codebreaking task, some of the others are a little too dense and detailed for the general reader.

It's a big book - well over 400 pages, and without doubt for the enthusiasts this deserves the full five stars. As a general read it can only really justify three, but even so, it's well worth taking a look and seeing if it takes your fancy, as it did ours - this was a crucial programme both in the winning of the Second World War and in the development of computing, and it deserves celebrating in a way that the mean minded shutter of supposed national interest has made it impossible to do before.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Peter Spitz

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Last update 05 June 2007