A room at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), has been dedicated to engineer and codebreaker Tommy Flowers - perhaps the most famous of all the employees at BT’s forerunner the GPO.
Flowers designed the first electronic programmable computer, Colossus which was used in World War II to crack the German Lorenz Code.
The Lorenz Code was introduced during the latter part of the war and proved much tougher to crack for a codebreaking team that included Cambridge graduate Bill Tutte and mathematician Max Newman.
Flowers was working at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill on thermionic valve technology and how it could be applied to telephone switching. He realised the technology could be used to help crack the code and built an electronic, programmable computer called Colossus.
Speaking at opening of the room, Dr Tim Whitley, BT’s managing director of research and innovation, described Flowers as a “rock-star engineer” and said it took the combination of Flowers’ industrial experience and the codebreakers’ academic brilliance to unravel the code.
“What you’ve got there is a history changing piece of innovation – the world’s first electronic programmable computer - cracking a code. If you hadn’t brought together the brilliance of academia with engineering and industrial know-how, history could have been very different. It’s a fabulous example of what we are trying to do with the IET.”
BT has worked with the IET for several years on the Diamond Jubilee Scholar programme, which provides support to undergraduates studying engineer subjects along with work placements at BT’s Labs. BT is the programme’s biggest sponsor with 75 scholars, and promotes an equal split between men and women. Some of the scholars attended the opening of the room.
In 2016 BT opened the Higher Education ICT training Tommy Flowers Institute at Adastral Park in Ipswich for postgraduate students, with the aim to develop world-class research leaders by linking industry with academia.
Gavin Patterson, BT’s chief executive, paid tribute to complementary talents of Flowers and the other codebreakers, when he officially opened the room.
“It was the fusion of academic prowess, for example Bill Tutte a recent Maths PHD from Cambridge and the automation concept of Max Neuman, with the industrial knowhow of Tommy that allowed the code to be cracked,” said Patterson.
“This is a beautiful example of the spirit of innovation driving the IET and indeed all of BT’s research. The idea that truly purposeful innovation comes from the fusion of world class academic research, with practical engineering knowledge and real-world experience of industrial labs. Above all, we believe that purposeful innovation can change the world.
“BT’s relationship with the IET is founded on our mutual goals to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists and to develop the current generation to be the best they can be.”