Tony Sale: Scientist and inventor who rebuilt the Colossus computer and campaigned to save Bletchley Park
Tuesday 06 September 2011
Tony Sale, a former Chief Scientific Officer at MI5, was one of the founders of the Bletchley Park Trust. He successfully campaigned to save the wartime code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park from demolition and was the mastermind behind the rebuilding of Colossus, the world's first operational computer and a vital part of the war effort, cracking the code used by the Nazi high command.
Colossus revolutionised code-breaking, reducing the time it took to break the German's Lorenz messages from weeks to hours. It gave vital information to Eisenhower and Montgomery before D-Day, deciphering messages which showed that Hitler had swallowed the Allies' campaign of deception – the phantom army in the South of England, the convoys supposedly moving east along the Channel –and was convinced that Allied forces would attack in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.
However, the British wanted to keep the Colossus technology secret from the Soviets, and after VJ Day Churchill ordered the dismantling of the machines; eight of the 10 Bletchley Park Colossi were dismantled, with two being sent to Eastcote in North London and then to GCHQ at Cheltenham. The last two were scrapped in 1960; all drawings of Colossus were destroyed and all those involved sworn to secrecy.
Information only began to emerge in the 1970s, and following investigations by Professor Brian Randell of Newcastle University, the government finally admitted to the machine's existence. Starting work in 1993, Sale had eight black-and-white photographs to work from and fragments of circuit diagram kept illegally by some engineers. Initially using some his own money he worked tirelessly with like-minded colleagues to rebuild Colossus. Part of their mission was to counter the myth, born due to the secrecy around Colossus, that the American's ENIAC was the first large-scale electronic digital calculator.
Born in London in 1931, Anthony Edgar Sale was educated at Dulwich College. From early on he showed a talent for engineering and at the age of 12 built a basic robot from Meccano. With "highers" in Maths, Advanced Maths, Physics and French, Sale joined the RAF in 1949 for his national service and was based at RAF Debden near Saffron Waldon. Reaching the rank of flying officer, he spent the next three years as an instructor at the Officers' Radar School.
It was here he created "George" the robot, using £15 of scrap aluminium and duralumin from a Wellington bomber which had crashed on the site. The 6ft-tall remote-controlled robot, which moved on castors and could "talk", was a sensation; few people had seen a human-looking robot. Sixty years later Sale brought "George" out of retirement and again captured the media's attention.
After the RAF, Sale joined Marconi's Research Labs in Great Baddow as research assistant to another engineer, Peter Wright, and worked on Doppler radar. In 1954, Wright, later of "Spycatcher" notoriety, was recruited by MI5 as head scientific officer specialising in radio interception. Sale was joined him there in 1957. During his six-year tenure, and at the height of the Cold War, the two were involved installing bugging devices and providing vans with radio detection equipment which enabled them to locate clandestine Russian communications stations. Sale also began a maths degree at London University, but was unable to complete it due his work.
In 1963, he left MI5 to lead a team designing weapons systems for he defence contractor Hunter Engineering, now a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. Then, seeing an opportunity in the evolving software industry,he set up Alpha Systems Ltd; it went into liquidation in 1980, but Sale successfully ran two further companies before becoming an independent consultant working with the British Computer Society.
In 1989, Sale was appointed asenior curator at the Science Museum in London, where he restoredsome of the computer holdings. At the same time, he established the Computer Conservation Society, a joint venture between the Museum and the British Computer Society, which from 1992 was associated with the Bletchley Park Trust.
In 1991, Sale learned of BT's plans for Bletchley Park's redevelopment and with a small group of friends started the campaign to save it for the nation, at a time when its historical relevance was not widely understood. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed a year later, with Sale named as secretary and museum adviser.
In 1993, Sale began to rebuild a working replica of Colossus, a task many deemed impossible without more documentation. It was a monumental challenge involving much research and a solid understanding of extremely advanced mathematics as well as the engineering skills to assemble such a complex machine. Ever the optimist, Sale interviewed former surviving engineers, including its chief designer Dr Tommy Flowers. Thereafter, armed with his "plans," he set about acquiring old valves and scouring telephone exchanges for material, although there was also much guesswork involved.
In 1995, there was a huge breakthrough. Under the Freedom of Information Act the American NationalSecurity Agency was forced to release almost 5,000 wartime documents, which included detailed technicaldescriptions of the Colossus written by Americans seconded to Bletchley Park. This enabled the team towork out the function of many more of the circuits and programme switches on Colossus.
Colossus was painstakingly reassembled over 14 years. "It's been a long, long job and a labour of love," he said. In November 2007, it was completed with about 90 per cent of Colossus operational; it was placed in the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, and in a demonstration a Lorenz-coded message was sent from Paderborn in Germany and intercepted at Bletchley. It was fed into the resurrected Colossus which, within three and a half hours, produced a decrypt, just as it had during the war.
Sale was awarded the Comdex IT Personality of the Year in 1997 and also received the Royal Scottish Society of Arts Silver Medal in 2000. He lectured on wartime code-breaking in the UK, Europe and the US and was technical adviser for the 2001 film Enigma. In his free time, Sale enjoyed fencing and motor racing.
Anthony Edgar Sale, computer scientist and inventor: born London 30 January 1931; married Margaret (three children); died 29 August 2011.
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