Code breakers secrets revealed

The secrets of wartime computers will mean the history books need rewriting

The British secret service is set to release reports about the types of computers used to break Nazi encryption during the Second World War, which are expected to rewrite the timeline of modern computing.

GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the modern headquarters for covert information gathering and processing in Britain, will release the 55-year-old classified documents to the public records office later this month.

The documents will show that a machine known as "Colossus II", with basic programmable capabilities, was being used at British code-breaking headquarters, Station X in Bletchley Park, to decrypt high-level tactical communications encrypted using the Lorenz code. By the end of the war ten such machines were being used to attack German messages. This programability represented a fundamental advance in machine computing.

The primitive Colossus computers were used to discover the configurations used to encrypt messages with smaller portable encryption devices.

The new documents will force historians to rethink the date at which the first electronic digital computer was used. A conventional view of history might suggest that the first "programmable" computer device was not used until 1946, but the Colossus machines are dated from two years earlier.

It has been suggested by some historians that the efforts of the Bletchley Park cryptographers, breaking Lorenz and the Enigma code, may have helped shorten the war by several years.

Take me to the Hackers News Special

To have your say online click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read what others have said.