Colossus

 

It’s a commonplace that today’s cell phones pack more computing power into their ingestible form factors than, say, the clunky boxes stuffed into the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules (v. the interminable re-runs of Apollo 13). Today’s news, however, puts Moore’s Law into an interesting new perspective.

"Colossus cracks codes once more," from the BBC, reports on efforts by computer enthusiasts to test a rebuilt Colossus (image above), a computing machine used to crack German codes at Bletchley Park during World War II, against modern PCs. As the BBC story notes, Colossus "was one of the first ever programmable computers and featured more than 2,000 valves and was the size of a small lorry."

(The British have an uncanny ability to resurrect technology of a certain age; cf. Vulcan to the Sky, the project that recently returned a RAF Avro Vulcan bomber to the air.)

The test involves radio messages transmitted from Paderborn, Germany (home to the world’s largest computer museum, definitely worth a visit), which will be intercepted and fed into the machines for decryption. Results of the experiment should be available soon. You can even play along at home; see the instructions here.

[Update: The results are in. Colossus II cracked the most difficult message in about four hours. But Joachim Scheuth, a computer enthusiast from Bonn, beat the venerable valve-powered behemoth with a custom program on on a PC.]

I’m no computer scientist, however, so the BBC headline, "Colossus cracks codes once more," caught my eye for a different reason. I immediately flashed back to Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), a War Games prequel probably recalled only by me and my fellow reveler in obscure sci-fi movies, Hal.

Walls O’ Blinky Lights, IBM Selectric Interface, and Ominous Computer Voice aside, Colossus: The Forbin Project is an entertaining tale that stars Eric Braden and Susan Clark and features Marion Ross and Georg Stanford Brown. Sadly, Dana Andrews’s agent overlooked this opportunity. Maybe Andrews was exhausted from Crack in the World and The Frozen Dead (alas, neither available on DVD).

But I digress. To burrow further into the story of Bletchley Park, too often hidden in the umbra cast by the Manhattan Project, see the following:

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