Colossus of computing conservation Tony Sale dies

Former RAF and MI5 engineer Sale led the project to recreate the Colossus computer from scratch and helped kick-start the campaign to save World War II code-breaking centre Bletchley Park

Tony Sale, the engineer who led the rebuilding of Colossus and kick-started the campaign to save Bletchley Park, has died at the age of 80.

Tony Sale with Colossus

Tony Sale, the engineer who led the rebuilding of Colossus computer, has died at the age of 80. Photo credit: The National Museum of Computing

Sale died at home in the early hours of Sunday morning after a short illness, a spokesman for the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) said on Tuesday. Working at Bletchley Park, the former MI5 spy catcher headed the project to recreate the Colossus World War II computer, which was used to break the codes used on German Enigma machines.

Andy Clark, chair of the trustees of Bletchley Park-based TNMOC, described Sale as an "extraordinary man". "We've lost a dear friend and a great communicator of science," he said. "We've lost an exceptional man."

Sale was born on 30 January, 1931, and as a teenager was educated at Dulwich College in London. He joined the Royal Air Force, and by the age of 20 he was lecturing on radar and involved in work on radio-frequency (RF) engineering. His work in these fields continued after he left in 1952 for Marconi's Research Laboratories.

Five years later, Sale took up a new job with MI5, where he worked as a spy catcher and developed mobile radio receivers for Peter Wright. Eventually he was appointed MI5's principal scientific officer and "went round London attempting to locate Russian spies in the late 1950s", Clark said.

Computer conservation

In the 1980s, Sale worked at the Science Museum in London. In 1989, he helped set up the Computer Conservation Society, a specialist group of the British Computer Society. Two years after that, he and his wife Margaret were among a small group of volunteers that started a campaign to save the World War II code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park from falling into decay.

Tony Sale with Colossus

Tony Sale began his career in the RAF and later became MI5's principal scientific officer. Photo credit: The National Museum of Computing

The project to rebuild the Colossus code-breaking computer from scratch began in 1993, led by Sale. The programmable computer was used in conjunction with the Tunny code-cracker to unpick the Lorenz ciphers used by the German High Command. The project to recreate the valve machine had few details to go on, as the parts and plans for Colossus were destroyed at the end of the war.

Sale built a number of robots as a hobby throughout his life. These included iterations of his 'George' robot, one version of which was patched together using scrap parts from a Wellington bomber. George I "languished in a garage for 45 years" before being dusted off and given new batteries, according to Clark.

George can walk, but lacks some of his earlier faculties, Clark said; the robot used to be able to identify an opened bottle of beer. Sale enjoyed showing the robot to the Queen and Prince Philip during a recent visit, he added.

"[Sale] was very excited about meeting the Queen, as we all were," said Clark. "The Queen asked specifically to come and see the Colossus rebuild."

Sale is survived by his wife, three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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