Bletchley Park was decades ahead of Silicon Valley. So what happened?

Two new books on intelligence — Intercept by Gordon Corera and Why Spy? by Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery — find that had Britain been less hidebound by secrecy it could have led the world in computer science

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies Gordon Corera

Weidenfeld, pp.431, £20, ISBN: 9780297871736

Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery

Hurst, pp.216, £25, ISBN: 9781849045131

Gordon Corera, best known as the security correspondent for BBC News, somehow finds time to write authoritative, well-researched and readable books on intelligence. Here he explores the evolution of computers from what used to be called signals intelligence to their transforming role in today’s intelligence world. The result is an informative, balanced and revealing survey of the field in which, I suspect, most experts will find something new.

He starts with an event that took place 101 years ago next month, when the British dredger Alert set off from Dover in the early hours to cut the German undersea telegraph cables. This inconspicuous act meant that throughout the first world war Germany’s overseas communications had to be sent by radio, which in turn meant they could be intercepted and eventually decoded. One of these intercepts was later instrumental in bringing America into the war, which helped shape our modern world.

The story of Enigma, Bletchley Park, Turing et al is well known (though that of Room 40, the 1914–1918 equivalent, less so). Corera’s account gives due credit to Tommy Flowers, the Post Office engineer who made Turing’s concept of a universal computer a reality by building Colossus. He also makes welcome mention of mathematicians other than Turing — the young Bill Tutte, for example, who stared at a wall for months, twiddling his pencil, as he conceptualised Tunny (the harder-than-Enigma machine that carried German High Command signals) and the maths that must lie behind it, without ever having seen one.

Corera next traces the evolution of computing following the second world war, showing how intimately entwined it was with Cold War signals intelligence. Of particular interest to us now is how the impermeability of most Russian ciphers led to what we call bulk data analysis. You may not be able to read the signals, but if you record them all, establishing the where and when and correlating them not just with each other but with observable events, you identify patterns. When you’ve done that you can identify what is normal, and once you’ve done that you can recognise the abnormal, which is what you’re after. That early computerised data-trawling led directly to the kind of market research that bodies such as Google and Facebook routinely do on us now, and to what governments can do when hunting terrorists, spies and criminals, if the law allows.

Why then is the computer industry and the internet dominated by America, just as, a century ago, Britain dominated the world’s telegraph system? ‘The story of the British computer industry after the war’, says Corera, ‘was one of brilliant engineering but business failure’. The reason seems to be not just vastly greater US resources but the closer linking of its defence and intelligence organisations with the commercial world, with people and ideas moving more freely between them.

Part of the legacy of Bletchley was the hermetic sealing of our intelligence bodies from the outside world, which meant that GCHQ neither fed into — nor always benefited from — commercial developments. An example is Phil Zimmermann’s PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption package, available to all on the internet. It and similar techniques offer much to banks and businesses — also to any terrorist, criminal or paedophile with much to hide — but in fact two individuals in GCHQ had worked out the technique years before Silicon Valley. They thought it better not to tell anyone.

In recent decades the means of communication and encryption that were once solely the province of defence and intelligence agencies have become everybody’s. This in turn means that a state seeking to frustrate its enemies — however defined — has to fish in the common internet sea rather than the secret streams of yesterday. Corera’s discussion of today’s privacy-versus-intrusion arguments, dramatised by the US defector Edward Snowden and the privacy-evangelist-cum-rape-suspect Julian Assange, sets out the issues and motives fairly and accurately. But it remains a puzzle why some who live under the most benign governments that have ever existed should do so much to help some of the least benign.

Another issue examined by Corera is the last Labour government’s permitting the Chinese company Huawei to become our telecoms infrastructure provider, in the course of which the Chief Information Officer, who was meant to look after our cyber security, jumped ship to do the same for Huawei. Whatever its professed intentions, no Chinese company can afford to say no to the Chinese government — and we know from the blizzard of attacks against British government and industry systems (about 70 a month) what their attitude is. Not to mention the Russians.

This must at the very least represent a theoretical long-term compromise of national security and it would be interesting to know which security dogs did not bark. Corera is too sensible in his wide-ranging and well-sourced survey to name names without hard evidence, but they are not difficult to work out.

The nonagenarian Brian Stewart’s musings on his long career in intelligence-related work — ably aided by the researcher Samantha Newbery — have the aroma of a good whisky, well-distilled. Rather than offer a blow-by-blow account, Stewart takes a historical and philosophical perspective, rightly emphasising that ‘good assessment is the key to good intelligence’ and regretfully observing that ‘it has been well said that customers sometimes use intelligence as a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination’. This was of course particularly the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, of which — as a former secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee — he is particularly critical. His book reads like an extended ambassadorial valedictory, as they used to be — and is all the better for it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

'Intercept', £16.50 and 'Why Spy?', £20 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Alan Judd is the author of C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    At the end of WWII, at least two reasons prevented HMG from granting hero status to the Bletchley Park cryptographers, who after all had single-handedly shortened the war by some two years and saved literally millions of lives. Specifically,
    -the assumption that there would be other wars, so this was not the moment to reveal secrets
    -HMG could sell allies the new, improved version of the “uncrackable” Enigma machine and thus listen in on traffic. “Keep your friends close …”
    -to prevent any possible “you didn’t fight fair” claim from those adversely disadvantaged
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Shinsei1967

      Third reason. The Russians didn’t know we had cracked Enigma and they actually used German Engima machines into the mid-1950s for their secret messaging. Which we were able to listen in on.

      • itdoesntaddup

        The Russian alphabet has 33 letters. Enigma only had 26 keys. Nonetheless we were able to tap and crack Soviet communications much later than that.

        • Shinsei1967

          You may both be right. My information comes from a BBC4 documentary on Bletchley a year or so ago. The fact that we needed to keep Engima cracking secret from the general public (and hence when likes of Tommy Flowers never had any recognition & why Turing could be so badly treated) was that it also had to be kept secret from the Russians.

      • The Soviets certainly knew that Britain had broken the Enigma cipher machine having a spy who worked at Blethcley (Cairncross). It is probable that they also knew that Britain had broken the more secret Lorenz version of the Geheimschreiber cipher machine as used by the German Army high command.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Ah, yes, John Cairncross: As a Soviet double agent, he passed to the Soviet Union the raw Tunny decrypts that influenced the Battle of Kursk. He was alleged to be the fifth member of the Cambridge Five.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Essentially what I was saying. Although, “allies” is stretching it a little when it came to the Russians.

    • Tom M

      It is ridiculous to suggest that Bletchley Park shortened the war by two years. How anyone could sensibly make suggestions like that is beyond logic.
      The American codebreakers (who surpassed those in Bletchley by a country mile) also claimed the same thing. George Marshall (chief of staff at the time) said they didn’t.
      As far as mathematically brilliant goes there were indeed several in that category at Bletchley Park during the war. But then it had been realised by the Poles that Enigma was a mathmatical problem not a linguistic one (which was how codes were cracked previously) so Bletchley employed the best mathematicians we had to provide solutions.
      However remember it was the Poles who did the complicated maths on Enigma (before they had ever seen one) and gave the results to (eventually) the British.
      The Poles had been breaking Enigma for years before the war and only defeated by the Germans enlarging the numerical possibilities of Enigma when war broke out. At the time, with their country being invaded, this was beyond their capacity. All the ideas for mechanical and perforated paper solutions came from them, improved by Bletchley without doubt but originated in Poland nonetheless.
      “Uncrackable” Enigma? Tell us more. Even the Germans knew that Enigma wasn’t beyond solution. This being why the continually changed the way it worked.
      In fact, knowing this, they created another machine more secure than Enigma called the Geheimschreiber for messages of strategic importance (this was what Colossus was tasked with cracking).

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        “It is ridiculous to suggest that Bletchley Park shortened the war by two years”
        No it isn’t, Tom. It’s nothing sort of the unadulterated truth, and it’s about time you heard some.

        • Tom M

          Morning Jack,

          As to codebreakers anywhere claiming they shortened the war seems an unsupportable claim to me. You would have to add up all the successes and failures of intelligence for all the beligerants in WW2 to even guess a figure. As far as Bletchley Park went that was pure British conceit.

          Here’s something I wrote a while ago on the subject for another audience and have posted it since elsewhere :

          There is lately (2014) a seeming desire to bring Alan
          Turing up to the status of someone who singlehandedly broke the German
          communications codes of WWII and so shortened the war by two years. Whilst
          having considerable regard for Alan Turing I think the above statement should be
          put into context.

          Following the advances made by the Poles on breaking
          German military communications before the war, the results of which had been
          commmunicated to the British, it was clear that the Poles mathematical approach
          to codebreaking had to be copied. Hence Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman et al (and there were an
          awful lot more) were co-opted to work at Bletchley Park on German Enigma codes.
          They had a head start. The Poles had been decoding German military Enigma traffic for five years.

          Gordon Welchman was put in charge of Army and Air force decodes Alan Turing was put in charge of Naval decodes and Dilly Knox was in charge of Italian decodes.

          The problem for history is that whilst Army and Air force
          decripts appeared regularly (if slowly) and Italian messages had been solved
          since 1937 nothing much appeared at all from Naval decripts. This in one sense
          was due to the Naval codes being more complicated than the others. However
          nothing of any value at all was read of Naval messages for the first 20 months
          of the war. Subsequent decodes up to 1943 or thereabouts that were current
          enough to be of use were largely because of captured code books from submarines
          or weather ships.

          Whilst Turing and Welchman made important improvements to
          the Poles equipment and procedures these should be looked upon more as
          development than as totally new ideas and decoding any message at that time was
          to put it mildly, tortuous, labour intensive and could take days.

          To fit all this into what was happening at the time it
          has to be remembered that the German Naval codebreakers B-Deinst were reading
          the Admiralty and Anglo-American convey ciphers. They decoyed the British Navy
          to allow the German army to invade Norway without interruption and regularly passed
          convoy information on to their U-boats for example.

          So in 1940 we had the worst problem with the least
          ability to confront it. The U-boats in the North Atlantic were threatening to
          cut off our ability to continue the war and we had no answer to them. Any help
          was desperately needed. Hence the importance of decoding German Naval messages.
          It is often claimed that the U-boat threat was defeated by breaking their
          message codes. I think this is hyperbole. That is not however to say Bletchley
          Park did not have their naval successes. The sinking of the Scharnhorst and
          Bismark being good examples of their capabilities when things went well.

          At the time with little resources to attack U-boats it
          was more important to know where the U-boats were than what they were talking
          about. Direction Finding found them when they communicated on the radio, they
          did that a lot, and if their location was known to be on a convey’s route you
          knew you had to avoid them. These systems were all we had and that was all we
          could do at that time of the U-boat war. It was only in the later war that we
          had sufficient resources such as improved rapid Direction Finding, ASDIC, long
          range aircraft and convey escorts to become proactive in the U-boat war. In
          that later period we were very sucessful at destroying U-boats with or without Enigma

          Comparatively of all the codebreakers in WWII the best
          and most prolific were, from the word off, the Americans. They broke every
          Japanese code that existed (even when they had the declaration of war decoded
          before the Japanese Ambassador they still didn’t know it was to be Pearl
          Harbour such is an example of the usefulness of decoded messages). George C
          Marshal (chief of staff) was quoted as saying he did not have the time to
          assimilate all the deocdes he was receiving, there were just too many. No
          comparable comment is on record made by any of the British armed forces
          commanders referring to the amount of decoded intelligence they had to cope

          The Germans had their codebreakers too B-Deinst and
          Pers-Z and at one count they had decoded 34 countries codes as well as
          unscrambling the scrambled telephone conversations between Roosevelt and

          In Africa Rommel’s codebreakers were deciphering the
          American miltary attaché’s reports of the battle order of Montgomery’s British
          forces at the same time they were being deciphered in Washington by the simple
          expedient of having stolen the American code books from the Embassy in Rome.

          In my opinion the being able to perform a decode at all on
          the war’s most brilliant coding system (as opposed to the amount of
          intelligence gained) is where the prize should go (but not all to Bletchley Park).
          As a technical achievment that was indeed outstanding. I do believe also that
          too little recognition is given to the very clever people who put the Enigma
          coding system together in the first place. It’s order of difficulty is why
          people like Alan Turing are revered.

          The American codebreakers after the war also claimed to
          have shortened the war. The American chief of staff at the time George C
          Marshal didn’t agree.

  • Mr. Dixie Bell

    Sounds great, I’ll definitely pick up both books! In this day and age, when we chat with end-to-end encrypted messengers like Threema and the like, it’s hard to appreciate the value of a machine like the Enigma.

  • Mr Douglas Dixon

    Phil Zimmerman did not have it easy – the intelligence agencies tried their best to put his ideas back in a box. No wonder Tommy Flowers is little known, therefore.

  • evad666

    I suggest the failure of the UK to utilize the advantage of the technology had more to do with the lack of scientists and Engineers in the upper echelons of UK society.
    After all the Civil Service and Politicians are to this day either Lawyers, Accountants or PPE Graduates.

    • Callipygian

      But honey, they all went to Canada, America, Australia, and other parts. It’s called The Brain Drain and it began with rationing and deepened with The Great British Wallet-Drain. I’m a child of the Brain Drain and I regret it in many ways, not least because I was torn from my country and family at a very young age for purely economic reasons.

  • cromwell

    Britain was ahead in many areas before world war 2. We gave the yanks all our latest science from code breaking to ASDIC to radar nuclear research aeronautics etc. for free to encourage them to join the war against Hitler

  • johndowdle

    My understanding is that one of Churchill’s last acts as WW2 Prime Minister was to order the literal destruction of all the machinery at Bletchley Park. As a result, the original results could not have been repeated even if anyone had wanted this.
    After the 1916 cutting of the cable between Germany and the USA, the US government allowed the German government – in the interests of peace negotiations – to use the US cable to send messages between Germany and North America.
    British intelligence tapped-in to the US-German cable, which is how they were able to copy the Zimmerman Telegram contents, which – arguably – contributed towards US entry into WW1, along with unrestricted submarine warfare by Imperial Germany.

    • sidor

      Technology is not the hardware: it is a pool of expertise kept inside a community of people. The physical equipment destroyed at Bletchley Park wasn’t relevant to any possible future development in the field.

      • johndowdle

        Yes – but Churchill also ordered the breakup of all the units at Bletchley Park, along with the equipment. As a result, the human capital along with the technical equipment was lost, leaving the US to take over the technological lead.

        • sidor

          It wasn’t his first stupidity. He was a great spiritual war leader, but his practical decisions were disastrous, like Gallipoli.

      • Bonkim

        Yes but there needs to be active manufacture and use for R&D to form part of the process. Britain had a huge heavy engineering and power industry in the 1950s and 60s, now gone and the next nuclear power station will be built mostly by the Chinese, Koreans or the Japanese. Even the US and France do not have the manufacturing capabilities that they had in the 1960s and 70s. Research and development can only coexist with active manufacture and construction.

  • right1_left1

    it seems to me the article is somewhat confused.
    I mean comparing Silicon valley to Bletchley park.

    As far as I know the UK has not produced anything of significant importance in solid state technology.
    The first (4 bit) processor was produced in the US as are today’s ‘no idea how many bits ‘ devices.
    As a technician I had considerable experience of electronics containing solid state devices. Mostly either Texas Instruments Intel or Motorola.
    The major successful software systems originated in the US
    Unix and Dos to name two.

    Bletchley park was concerned with decoding messages
    The activity is reported as solely a demonstration of intellect..
    I believe a valve (vacuum tube) computor was developed.
    In fact the Polish resistance delivered an Enigma machine ( or parts of) to the UK and most important one was captured with codes intact from a German Uboot that didn’t scuttle.

    We did have a computor industry, Ferranti at least,but it fell by the wayside,
    I dont know why.

    Many will know that Charles Babbage originated the computor industry along with Ada Lovelace. Likewise the Russians invented baseball.
    Thats Ada Lovelace not be confused with Linda.

    • sidor

      According to opinion polls, most of the Americans believe that computer was invented by Bill Gates. What is your opinion?

      • Bonkim

        In the modern sense yes – as Babbages was an adding machine – later modified into office accounting machines such as Comptometers in the 1940s and 50s.

        As with most high end technologies such as nuclear science, the theories were formulated way back, some in the 19th century. But means to translate theory into practice, materials and techniques of construction did not become practicable until the 20th century – and WW2 triggered many developments.

        • sidor

          Your opinion is interesting in the context: you too seem to be unaware that the architecture of modern computers was invented by Turing and von Neuman. It is not your personal problem: these two heroes are never mentioned by the media. An average consumer is also unaware that the immense prosperity of the modern population is based on Maxwell’s equations which, according to Feynman, happened to be the most important event of the 19th century in terms of its impact on our life.

          • Bonkim

            Yes Turing and Neuman feature high – but have to repeat my earlier point that whilst number theory, binary arithmetic, etc, were all exercised many minds, over the century/decades, not until the invention of the vacuum tube was some of the theories put to use. Previously experimented on using relay logic, mechanical devices, etc. Believe it or not the V2 Rocket had relay logic circuits built in to regulate various parameters.

            The practical computing machines using electronic switching could only evolve following the invention of transistors and expanded when chip technology developed. The Japanese also contributed immensely to developing electronics. Toshiba for example was up there with Bell Labs.

            It is difficult to attribute single names to modern developments – and R&D on a massive scale and translating various theories into practical and commercial applications take large teams or industries/government departments such as the US Defense department or major internationals such as GM or Sony/Toshiba/GE to bring togethther the technologies and management/manufacturing, etc to convert ideas into every day use. No longer an eccentric vicar suddenly having that bright idea that changed mankind.

            In that context US, USSR, China/Japan and Korea that have the manufacturing capacity come up top – but the interesting fact is that Britain still does a loot of R&D for some of these internationals – so fertile ground for leading edge scientists but not able to realise their full potential because Britain has stopped making things – as it did pre-war and also until the late 1960s when British industry can be said to have come to its end. It is oday 10% of U.K GDP.

          • WTF

            Quantum physics is all about theoretical maths and stuff but it takes a long time before the means to test a theory out becomes available. I think most of us appreciate that the theory of anything is formulated long before it can be put into practice as a workable machine.

          • TomV

            don’t forget Konrad Zuse and Plankalkül

      • Oddsbods

        I met Americans who were sure that apple pies and pizzas originated in the USA.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          But face it, Yanks are thick.

    • Bonkim

      High in theory but venture capital and the wide open spaces of the US attracted brains from all over the world which catalysed into the computer – hard and software industry of today. Don’t also forget the huge investments in defence and consumer electronics, and avionics that the US had made all through the post-WW2 decades, also the brains from Nazi Germany that went there and spawned many leading edge industries, also space and rocket science. The industry really took off in the 1970s and 80s and advent of many mathematicians and engineers from India, China and other parts of the world – Britain just did not have the pull-power or risk finance to attract all that.

    • Tom M

      Sensible analysis.

    • Thats Ada Lovelace not be confused with Linda.
      Will that surname ever be the same again?

    • ButcombeMan

      I suppose ARM Ltd never happened?

  • sidor

    What happened? Alan Turing, the most prominent British computer scientist was helped to commit suicide. This indicates the attitude of the society.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Keep in mind that up to the early 1950s, both homosexuality and suicide were criminal offences. Victimless crimes, but they got you coming and going. Homosexuality opened the door to blackmail. Selected medical opinion had it that homosexuality was a disease that some men were born with. So essentially punishing men for something they were not responsible for, akin to punishing people for being left-handled.
      And back in the ’50s, the notion that women could be homosexual was literally unimaginable.
      Britain is, and always was a screwed up country. Too small for a country, too big for a lunatic asylum.
      Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

      • Labour Mole Catcher

        Alright, enough about you and you thing for Ed Miliband!

      • sidor

        There were plenty of homosexuals in the upper class. In the case of Turing this was a pretext. The main reason was that he was a security risk. Something like Dr. Kelly.

  • john

    As usual, the reason is that Britain places far higher status on inherited wealth, class and privilige than it does on achievement. Who is better known – our best scientists or Kate Middleton?

    • sidor

      Chekhov, a great playwright, once mentioned: “The public is a stupid woman”. He probably meant the theatre public, but it is true in a more general sense.

      • He was only a bit right. The public is a stupid man, but it’s also an intelligent canny man and a canny woman, too. That’s why we have democracy. If the people were all truly stupid, democracy wouldn’t work nor be desirable.

        • right1_left1

          What exactly does democracy really mean ?
          It supposedly relates to the will of the people being implemented through elected representatives.

          So …(pregnant pause for emphasis)… if we have an issue on which the people are closely split then whose ‘willie’ is biggest and best suited to being implemented ?

          If said elected representaives often ignore a clearly stated mass preference or do things without any reference to the people what then is that to be called ?
          Shamocracy ?

          • Freddythreepwood

            It’s called nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

          • right1_left1

            Im not sure whether that response is a criticism of me or Callipygian,

            Since you seem to be a bit of a madame or a martinet perhaps you could clarify.?

            Deviating I say for example whether anything has the quality of ‘goodness’ is a mattor of opinion as is what ‘goodness ‘ really is.
            see ur comment on Checkoff.

      • Freddythreepwood

        It is a matter of opinion as to whether Chekhov was a great playwright and, even in a general sense, he was wrong.

        • sidor

          To make the discussion more specific, which of his plays that you saw you regard as not particular great?

          Chekhov was a religious fundamentalist. All what he wrote was about Good and Evil. He considered the apparent stupidity of common people is a fundamental Evil. The latter he viewed as a natural phenomenon, a basic property of the material world.

          • Freddythreepwood

            It is still a matter of opinion as to whether or not he was a great playwright. But if you enjoy ‘the plays what he wrote’ (sic) perhaps you would also get some mileage out of the musings of Earnie Wise.

          • sidor

            ‘the plays what he wrote’ (sic)

            Who do you quote?

            And I still don’t know which Chekhov’s plays you are talking about.

          • Freddythreepwood

            Why you sidor. I quote you, with a bit of the blessed Ernie.

          • sidor

            I haven’t written the quoted sequence of characters. Was it communicated to you by Ernie who you regard superior to Chekhov?

          • Freddythreepwood

            I do not intend to do your sub-editing for you. Find it for yourself. And if I have to choose between Chekhov and Ernie, it would be Ernie every time, so you got that right.

          • sidor

            Looks like you do some editing. Could you pleas quote the entire sentence that includes these sequence of characters?

            I am not surprised that you choose Ernie: you saw his movies, and you don’t remember any of Chekhov’s plays.

          • Freddythreepwood

            What part of ‘find it for yourself’ did you not understand?

          • right1_left1

            You have omitted the dative or is it accusative case. ?

            Whom do you quote. – Accusative.
            To whom did you send the quote – Dative.

    • Freddythreepwood

      Who is better known – America’s best scientists or Madonna?
      Who is better known – France’s best scientists or Charles Hasnovoice?
      Who is better known – Germany’s best scientists or Boris Becker?
      Who is better known – Russia’s best scientists or Lenin?

      Sorry to puncture your class-war rant – I think even you will see where I am coming from.

      • john

        You miss the point. All of the names you mention did something to achieve fame and status. Even the Kardashians did something. The British royals and their appendeges did nothing.

        • Freddythreepwood

          I don’t think it is I who is missing the point.

          • john

            Deference is the British disease.

          • Freddythreepwood

            Like all lefty trolls you want the first and last word and to hell with the rules of debate. You are not even making the right argument, twisting the discussion to suit your own agenda. Go away.

          • Herbert Thornton

            Calling somebody a “left-wing troll” doesn’t seem (to me) to be a legitimate form of debate.

            To my mind John’s point about wealth and status is a very sound one – except that he uses the word “British”. I think that “English” would be more accurate. In Scotland for example, inherited wealth and such seem to attract less deference.

  • greggf

    “‘…..was one of brilliant engineering but business failure’.”

    This probably stems from something which, I believe, Churchill said: “Engineers should be on Tap never on Top”.
    And it sums up the attitude of the elites in Britain to this day, among which was to ensure the demise of grammar schools …..

  • WTF

    Its fair to say that theoretical computers were around for some time on paper and then mechanical computers like Babbage were created followed by electro-mechanical computers using relays and then valves (Tubes), however they all had serious limitation on scaling up for greater processing power due to their size and power supply requirements.

    The real turning point for practical powerful computers was most definitely carried out in the USA at Bell Labs. They created the first transistor which was the building block for the first simple integrated circuits which companies like Texas Instruments commercialized. Ferranti did dabble in this technology as well but never really made a commercial success of it. Then of course, Intel created the first 4 bit microprocessor and then they and others like Rockwell, Phillips came out with 8 bit processors and the rest is history.

  • polistra24

    I doubt that secrecy is the main problem. British electronic design in ALL areas has ALWAYS been ahead of American. From Wheatstone’s telegraph to Marconi’s wireless to Fleming’s diode to Baird’s television to radar to big computers to Sinclair microcomputers, Brits got there first. But Americans took better commercial advantage of the inventions each time.

    • right1_left1

      Re the superiority of British electronic design.
      As i posted earlier I had considerable, and I do mean considerable experience of electroncs. equipment working as a ‘umble technician.
      I was employed at the time of the change over from valve(vacuum tube) to solid state technology.

      I can tell you without the slightest fear of contradiction that the products of the USA and Germany were superior in every respect to those produced in the UK.

      examples ?
      Tektronix oscilloscpes
      Hewlett Packard measuring devices of ALL kinds.
      Wandell and Goltermann (one firm) and Siemans signal generators.
      Comparing reliability stability and performance to UK equivalents…no contest.

      Why is that you ask.
      Well the answer has been alluded to in this thread
      The education system and in particular the overall ethos emphasised by the UK public schools.
      No doubt many will scoff but I am CERTAIN that if comprehensive schools had not been undermined by apeshit social trendy theories the decline of the UK would not have been so severe.

      The UK clearly posseses (certainly possesed) the scientific creativity but if science and and in particular practical technology are held in low esteem then it must follow that industrial achievemnet (on a large scale) will whither away. and the standard of living of the masses will decline.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Well, even Jeremy Clarkson could have told us that. And he did, funnily enough.

  • Simon Fay

    OK, so the flipping Yanks got all the computing and nuclear know-how…and held the national gold reserve hostage…and sacked the Empire.

    But let’s get things in perspective – we got Robert Maxwell. And Jeremy Thorpe. And the Windrush. And a KGB dead-letter-drop located in Norman Scott’s bum. Probably.

  • Gilbert White

    Why didn’t Basil Fawlty take over the running of the Waldorf Astoria is another question I ask.

  • Evaacolton

    NNow Get It -ssppeectator

  • Blindsideflanker

    It was the fault of the suffocating British establishment , who look down on business enterprise and trade. Time and time again we have seen the British establishment pull the plug on technological developments to smother them at birth because they don’t understand them, their Classic education at Oxbridge doesn’t cover technology. A what is more surprising is that , when the British empire was built on trade, it is something they came to look down on.

    • john

      The point is more fundamental. Members of the Establishment have its presevervation as their modus vivendi and resist anything that could lead to change in social hierachy.

  • Barzini

    Reminds me a bit of David Lean’s film ‘Breaking the Sound Barrier’ where Britain led the way in attempting to break the speed of sound in flight via the use of the jet engine………