Unsung heroes of IT: The story of Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers

Official secrecy has almost certainly stopped Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers from receiving due recognition as pioneers of the modern computer.

This is the view of Jerry Roberts, the last surviving member of the Testery, part of Station X, Bletchley Park's code-breaking operation of the Second World War.

Roberts, who will be 90 this year, has embarked on a publicity campaign in the hope of seeing justice done. He says everyone knows of the contribution of Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing, but very few know of the possibly more important roles played by Tutte and Flowers.

"Bill Tutte was a most astonishingly brilliant man," says Roberts. "He was a 24-year-old mathematician, and by sheer iron logic he worked out how the [German high command's Lorenz cipher] system (see How the Lorenz machine worked) worked.

"When you consider there were three levels of encryption, it was an extraordinary performance," he says. "It has even been called the outstanding mental feat of the last century."

From Jerry Roberts

Thank you for giving good recognition to Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers in your article. There are a couple of points, if you don’t mind me mentioning it.

I am the last of the 11 Testery cryptographers (who worked on Tunny traffic) still alive in this country, but not the last of (those who served at) Bletchley Park (Station X).

People often have the impression Colossus (or “Heath Robinson”) did everything. Not so. The Testery for a whole year broke Tunny by hand (mid 1942 to mid-1943) and broke most of it some another six months (mid-1943 to end-1943). We had no help from machines at that first, important stage.

The Newmanry was set up in mid-1943 to handle the use of machines. They only help to speed up one stage of the daily breaking of Tunny. Well over 70% of the work was done by the Testery, one senior member said to me.

Very best wishes

Jerry Roberts


Breaking the World War 2 German encryption codes >>

Code Breaker Secrets >>

Colossus: The first programmable computer >>

How the Lorenz machine worked >>

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