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Key figure in colossal job to rebuild war computer

ANTHONY EDGAR SALE COMPUTER SCIENTIST, REINVENTER 30-1-1931 29-8-2011

ANTHONY EDGAR SALE

COMPUTER SCIENTIST,

REINVENTER

30-1-1931 29-8-2011

TONY Sale, who was chief scientific officer at MI5, Britain's intelligence service, and in his retirement campaigned to preserve the wartime code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, where he rebuilt Colossus, the machine that cracked the code used by Hitler and his high command, has died. He was 80.

Colossus had been designed by the engineer Tommy Flowers to determine the settings used on the Nazi Lorenz machine, which encrypted messages with greater complexity than the Nazi's Enigma device. When Colossus came on line, in mid-1944, it allowed Allied commanders to "read Hitler's mind".

This proved crucial as the Allies were trying to convince the Germans that the thrust of the D-Day attacks would come in the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Colossus gave military planners near real-time confirmation that, even after D-Day, Hitler had swallowed the bluff, refusing to reinforce his positions in Normandy as he feared a larger landing elsewhere.

But the enormous success of Colossus also proved its downfall. Keen to keep Colossus technology a secret from the Soviets in the postwar era, Churchill ordered that all trace of the machines be destroyed. Stalin knew that Bletchley had cracked Enigma, but he never knew of the success against Lorenz. In the 1960s, the last surviving Colossus machine was also scrapped, eradicating what has often been dubbed "the world's first computer".

In 1993, Sale set about rebuilding a Colossus. He visited engineers who had worked on the original and discovered that some of them had illegally retained scraps of the original plan. "The rebuild was done from eight black and white photographs and 10 fragments of circuit diagram," Sale revealed later. Armed with the plans, he acquired old valves more than 2000 of which were used in Colossus and "standard telephone exchange gear" which Flowers had incorporated into the original design as it was easily available.

Over the next 14 years, Sale and 20 assistants reassembled Colossus. "I had to piece it all together and slowly work out how each part worked," he said. "It's been a long, long job and a labour of love."

Finally, in November 2007, it was ready. A Lorenz-coded message was duly sent from Paderborn, central Germany, and intercepted at Bletchley. It was fed into the resurrected Colossus which, within 3 hours, produced a decrypt just as it had in World War II.

Sale was born in south London and educated at Dulwich College. A gifted mathematician and engineer from an early age, he built a rudimentary robot, named George, from Meccano at the age of 12.

He completed his National Service at RAF Debden, near Saffron Walden, and at age 20, as a flying officer, lectured aircrew on advances in radar. In 1950, he built a new, 1.8-metre tall version of George from the wreckage of a Wellington bomber. (Sixty years later, he unpacked George from the box in which he had stored it, oiled his joints and fitted two new lithium batteries and watched the humanoid shuffle across the floor. "I switched him on and away he went," said Sale.)

After the RAF, Sale became a research assistant at Marconi's laboratories at Great Baddow, Essex, where he was an assistant to Peter Wright on research into Doppler radar.

Wright, the future author of Spycatcher (who retired to live in Tasmania) was recruited into MI5 as principal scientific officer in 1954, focusing on signals intelligence. Sale followed him there in 1957, and during his six years at MI5, he began a maths degree at London University, but his work prevented him completing it.

In 1963, he moved to Hunting Engineering, where he worked on weapons systems. In 1968, Sale launched the first in a series of software companies, Alpha Systems, which went into liquidation in 1980. It was followed by two other software companies before, in 1989, Sale joined the Science Museum, where he restored and helped curate displays on computing.

This led to the Computer Conservation Project, which Sale started to preserve the history of British computing.

In 1991, he was part of a small group who began a campaign to save Bletchley Park. When the Bletchley Park Trust was formed in 1992, Sale was named its secretary and museums adviser. The following year he began the task of rebuilding Colossus.

In 1995, there was a breakthrough that transformed the project from imagineering to engineering. Under its Freedom of Information Act, the United States government had released a shoal of classified wartime documents including a detailed technical description of the Colossus, written by a visiting US army scientist.

Sale and his wife, Margaret, had personally funded the project in the beginning, but now sponsors began to come forward, and with the help of volunteers and the donation of wartime valves from hundreds of electronic hobbyists, the Colossus was completed in 2007. It was placed in the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

Work at the Bletchley Park Trust was not always without incident. In 1998, an ex-property developer named Christine Large was brought in as director. Described as "tiny, Geordie, [with] a spine of steel", she quickly won a long lease for the Bletchley museum from BT and the Treasury, which own the land. But at the trustees meeting when her appointment was announced, Sale reportedly stood up and declared: "That'll be the end of Bletchley Park, then."

A battle for control of Bletchley erupted in which Sale allegedly led seven of Bletchley's 12 trustees in a coup against Large. But a Charities' Commission investigation into the battle led to the resignations of the seven trustees and Large was reinstated.

Sale, she said on her return, had "made an industry" from allowing people to believe he had been connected to Bletchley in its glory days. Of the dispute, she noted: "I think the problem was that I was female, not retired, not a civil servant."

Sale lectured widely on Bletchley and Colossus in his last years, even providing virtual tours of the site through his webpage.

He was also a script adviser to numerous documentary series, as well as the 2001 film, Enigma, based on the Robert Harris novel. Among his honours were honorary doctorates from Lincoln and Middlesex universities, and the silver medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2000.

Away from computing, he was in his youth a keen fencer, and later enjoyed motor racing, winning several races in a pre-war MG.

Sale is survived by his wife, Margaret, herself a Bletchley Park stalwart, three children and seven grandchildren. TELEGRAPH


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