Photo (c) Gordon Tant – gordontantphotography.com
In 1998, I became fascinated by a documentary broadcast by Channel 4 entitled ‘Station X’, a history of Bletchley Park. Throughout its four episodes a new world was opened up to me of whose existence I had no idea. My excitement peaked when I realised that not only did it still exist, but was within an hour’s drive. A small group of volunteers were keeping the site open every alternate weekend and guided tours were available. I planned my visit having become thoroughly captivated with the story.
Upon arrival at Bletchley Park we partook in a guided tour that only served to whet my appetite more. The tour was given by a late-middle-aged man called Tony, who I recognised immediately from the documentary. He spoke with great enthusiasm and passion for his subject. He was giddy as a schoolboy when he pointed to a rather unimpressive black metal frame and explained how, in a few years, it would be a fully-operational Turing Bombe. In the meantime he explained how the Bombe would cope in a race against a Pentium P90 computer (probably a draw) and took us up to Faulkner House, the BT training centre where we actually got to operate an Enigma. This moment sealed the deal for me and I said to my wife there and then that if we ever moved close to Bletchley I would volunteer.
It would be twelve years before I had another opportunity to visit Bletchley Park. We had just moved to Milton Keynes and I had to go and take a look. The metal frame had now indeed become an amazing rebuild of the Bombe, Faulkner House had gone to make way for developments but who was this in H Block? It was our tour guide, Tony. I recognised him instantly, shook his hand and asked him about his project to rebuild Colossus, the first programmable computer and centrepiece of the Bletchley Park story. A few minutes later and there I was, captivated by this impossible machine. If you’ve never seen Colossus, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a sci-fi prop, not anything that could possibly work, but work it did. Dumbstruck, I decided there and then that I had to be part of this.
Thirteen years since I first met Tony and I’m now a tour guide at Bletchley Park. My passion for the story and it’s significance having only increased as I start to comprehend the achievements of the codebreakers and the impact of their work on the modern world. As I trained up to be a guide I started to learn more about my tour guide, Tony. Turns out he was a military man, in the RAF working on Radar. In later years he worked at the Science Museum restoring vintage computers. However, his crowning achievement would begin in the late 1980s when he got wind of Bletchley Park and the idea sparked into life that he could rebuild Colossus. Turns out, he played a significant part in saving the whole park from demolition.
During the war, ten Colossi were built and deployed at Bletchley Park. They were the brainchild of Tommy Flowers and his team, a design that assisted with the cracking of the Lorenz SZ42 cyphers. Extreme secrecy meant that it was not until the 1980s that it was realised that Britain had produced the World’s first programmable computer and that this work had informed the development of the digital age. Churchill insisted that all Colossi were destroyed at the end of WWII to maintain secrecy, so a great part of British history was lost. Well, it would have been if it wasn’t for Tony.
Tony spent the next fourteen years building an exact replica of a Colossus MKII. GCHQ didn’t even acknowledge the machine’s existence at the time so all he had to go on was a small group of photographs and some circuit diagrams kept hidden by some engineers. With a little help from Tommy Flowers he was able to piece the design together and he and his team were able to rebuild the entire machine using BT’s abandoned analogue switches and a lot of know-how.
It was an incredible achievement. It worked too! Colossus successfully played it’s part in cracking ‘The Great Cypher Challenge’, as real-life to a WWII code-breaking exercise as it was possible to get. The work also resulted in the formation by Tony and his colleagues of The National Museum of Computing, the first and largest effort to preserve classic and vintage computers and technology for the benefit of the public.
I think (pardon the pun) a crowning achievement of Tony’s was demonstrating Colossus to The Queen on her visit to Bletchley Park last month. It really underlined the importance of the project for it to be publicised in such a decisive way.
So, it makes it all the harder for me to accept that on the 28th August 2011, we lost Tony at age 80.
Tony’s achievements over the course of his life were nothing short of remarkable. He had a direct influence on me, as he did so many other people. If fact my own son spoke today of the “nice man who gave me some computer tape” (the perforated tape used by Colossus). It’s always been a thrill when giving tours to see Tony tinkering at the back of Colossus and be able to point him out to the visitors and say “There’s the man who built it”. I’m in the Park on Saturday and I’ll still check if he’s there. If he isn’t, I’ll just assume he has popped off to test a valve or maybe to have a cup of tea with his wife, Margaret. Either way, maybe I’ll see him on the next tour.
I’ve written this to say thank you to Tony, as publicly as I can, for all he did for Bletchley Park and also, for me. We’ll carry on his work; we have to. The biggest challenge will be filling the enormous gap that someone like Tony leaves behind. We can but try.
Tony Sale is survived by his wife Margaret, three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.