There was a very dramatic moment at the invitational International
Research Conference on the History of Computing which was held in Los
Alamos, New Mexico in June of 1976.
I (Bob Bemer) left the National Computer Conference in New York and
flew to Albuquerue on June 9. Dr. Heinz Zemanek (President of IFIP, the
International Federation for Information Processing) was my seatmate.
From there we drove to Los Alamos.
On Friday evening a reception was given by the Director of the Los
Alamos Labs. Present was an Englishman named Dr. A. W. M. Coombs, who
was so excited about something that he was literally bouncing up and
down. When I asked the cause he replied "You'll know tomorrow morning --
Saturday morning we regathered in an auditorium. I sat third row from
the front, a couple seats in from the right, to get a good view of all
the famous attendees. To my left in the same row, three empty seats
intervening, was the bouncy Englishman, all smiles and laughter. In
front of him, two seats left, was Professor Konrad Zuse, who had already
told the conference about his use of relay computers to trim the control
surfaces on the V-1 buzz bombs going to London, and how Hitler had
refused to allow him to develop an electronic computer for Germany
during World War II (Hitler said it would not be needed, because the V-2
rockets were going to be so successful). In the fifth row, again left,
was Dr. John Mauchly, of ENIAC fame.
On stage came Prof. Brian Randell, asking if anyone had ever wondered
what Alan Turing had done during World War II? He then showed slides of
Bletchley Park, home base of the British cryptographic services during
that war. He showed a slide of a lune-shaped aperture device found in a
drawer there, saying it was part of a 5000-character-per-second (!)
paper tape reader.
From there he told the story of Colossus, the world's really first
electronic computer, used to break the German Enigma cipher. Much has
been written on this since, and most have agreed that the Allies could
very well have lost the war without the services of Colossus and its
successors in unbuttoning Enigma. But that day at Los Alamos was close
to the first time the British Official Secrets Act had permitted any
The decision to keep everyone in view paid off. Mauchly, who had thought
up until that moment that he was involved in inventing the world's
first electronic computer, actually dropped his jaw (physically).
Zuse's facial expression looked anguished -- whether national, in that
Germany lost the war in part because he was not permitted to build his
electronic computer -- or professional, in that he could have taken
first honors in the design of the world's most marvelous tool.
But the bouncy Englishman was the man doing the day-to-day running of
Colossus. Wouldn't you be excited if, after a third of a century, you could
at last answer your children on "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"
You might read a book centered about Colossus,
Anthony Cave Brown's masterpiece "Bodyguard of Lies".
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