Hidden heroes

The BBC have just broadcast and put on YouTube an excellent hour long documentary about two people whose wartime work is credited with shortening the war and saving millions of lives. Yet because of the cold war and the climate of secrecy, credit came late or not at all.

Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes‘ details the work of young mathematician Bill Tutte who broke the German’s top-secret Lorenz code and Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who built the first electronic computer ever – to replace ‘Heath Robinson’, the mechanical device used to process the code-breaking.

Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers were both ‘scholarship boys’ who benefitted from the best educational and research opportunities available to their generation. Earlier conflicts may not have been able to discover and develop such talents. (And it’s questionable whether comparable educational opportunity is available today.)

It’s hinted towards the end of the program that the extended secrecy about their achievements is connected to the assumption that the Soviets continued to use the captured German Lorenz system into the 1950s. You can only imagine Tommy Flowers’ frustration, biting his tongue every time someone referred to ENIAC as the first computer!

You have to marvel at the beautiful minds of these two men – dealing with complex matrices and patterns and the logic associated with understanding them – without the tools we take for granted today. One of my favourite scenes is Bill Tutte at his desk with a hand drawn grid on a large sheet of paper tracking the pattern of the characters in the coded messages.