1977 - Thomas Harold ("Tommy") Flowers

Left to right: Professor E.S. Page, Mr T.H. Flowers,
M.B.E., and His Grace the Duke of Northumberland

Public Orator's speech for Thomas Harold Flowers

Mr Chancellor,

None of us here assembled lives out a single day but that at some point its course is influenced, for better or for worse, by that astounding technological invention the computer. It has been suggested that what the wheel is to our muscles, the computer is to our brains - an interesting if arguable proposition. What is certain is that the computer, though still a babe in contrast to the wheel, has grown at a prodigious rate. But whilst the infant's health and strength are now assured, there is, or was till recently, some mystery about its birth and parentage.

In October 1975 a set of photographs was made available at the Public Records Office of a machine called Colossus. The pictures, together with the explanatory caption, indicated beyond doubt that a series of programmable electronic devices had been built in Britain during the Second World War, the first being operational by 1943. The caption indicated that Colossus had a number of distinguishing features: punched paper tape inputs operating at 5,000 characters per second; photo-electric tape readers; bistable hard-valve circuits performing counting, binary arithmetic and Boolean logic operations; electronic storage registers changeable by an automatically controlled sequence of operations; conditional (branching) logic; logic functions pre-set by patch-panels or switches, or conditionally selected by telephone relays; fully-automatic operation; solenoid operated electric typewriter output.

One must assume that the machine was not entirely straightforward and the caption vouchsafed the information that its development was undertaken by a small team led by T. H. Flowers.

Thomas Flowers has carried the secret of that early development for over thirty years. Only since the release of the photographs of Colossus has there been any relaxation of official secrecy and only now, rather belatedly, can we begin to understand, at least in part, the technological contribution that he made and its vital relevance to strategies of war.

Before the war Thomas Flowers worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill in north-west London. He had gone there in 1930 after serving his apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal, an establishment renowned for its precision engineering. So precise in fact that a railway engine, built during his apprenticeship as a result of spare capacity, fitted the rails so well that it could not go round corners. His main research interest at Dollis Hill was long-distance signalling and even in those days he had considerable experience of electronics and had fore-knowledge of developments in radar.

In 1941 Thomas Flowers was asked to go to Bletchley Park, a Foreign Office establishment in Buckinghamshire, which we now know to have been the nerve centre of the British code-breaking organization. The first problems that he tackled on going to Bletchley were not of themselves of great significance but they did establish him and two members of his team, Broadhurst and Chandler, as the leading experts in electronics in the establishment.

About this time there was mounting pressure to try to crack the code known as "Fish" used by the German High Command. The requirements for machines to do so had been formulated by Professor M. H. A. Newman but there were mechanical snags in the operation of the ones they built, the first of which was known as Heath Robinson. Flowers suggested an electronic solution to the problem involving the introduction of 1,500 valves but his unorthodox suggestion was not adopted. Being a man of determination, he took his idea back to Dollis Hill where it was given a more enlightened reception. And so began the building of Colossus. Miraculously it worked to the dumbfoundment but delight of former sceptics.

The application of this machine conceived of genius, the secrets it unravelled, the strategies it frustrated - these are another part of history some of which may never be unfolded. We know that urgent demand was made for more Colossi, speedier in operation than the first. The dead-line for Mark II was 1 June 1944 and after frantic months of ceaseless work that dead-line was beaten - just five days to D-day.

A brief account of chronological facts omits the personal and human aspects of the tale; the pressure, and the cloak of secrecy, anxiety, frustration and, above all, intense fatigue. Yet Tommy Flowers looks back and says 'It was a great time in my life'. Only one episode mars his recollection of those days.

His working schedule clashed with Home Guard duly and took priority. He was dismissed.

Now that the story of Colossus is unfolded the computer historians have thought again about the antecedents of their child. Perhaps after all his birth place, a secret of war, was on this side of the Atlantic. Historians will argue. By modern definition Colossus was not a computer in that it was not multi-purpose. But nor was its trans-Atlantic counter-part, ENIAC, which it pre-dated. If Colossus was not the first computer, perhaps it was his godfather.

Newcastle bases its claim to be the first university to honour Thomas Flowers on two particular counts. First, some of its members have sought to learn the secrets of the early days of their technology and to give recognition to those who played the major parts. And second, its Computing Laboratory, of which we are proud, celebrated its twentieth birthday on 1 April, all fools' day! It did so with an ingenuity denied to those without computer brains. It created for future generations of computer men a new academic robe to be worn by he who heads the team. Embroidered on this vestment is the modest statement of their aspirations - 'and tomorrow the world'.

After the war Thomas Flowers returned to Dollis Hill where he continued to make original contributions in the electronics of communication. Now he has retired. He does not think in terms of primacy. To men like him it matters less who wins the race, than who runs well.

Mr Chancellor, I submit to you that Thomas Flowers and all his team ran well and we are proud to honour him for what he did those many years ago. I now present him to you and ask you to confer on him the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Dr. D.A. Shaw