Tommy Flowers – Developed the Computer that beat Hitler

Tommy Flowers Screenshot 2015-12-21 07.50.21

Tommy Flowers

Thomas “Tommy” Flowers is perhaps one of the most important and least known people in modern computing history. Born on this date, Dec 22, in 1905,  Flowers developed the first electronic programmable computer, known as Colossus.

Colossus was designed specifically for decoding intercepted communication between the top leadership of the Nazi party including Hitler, Admiral Durnetz and Field Marshall Rommel as well as their generals on the battlefront. The Germans entrusted their most secret messages to a machine known as the Lorenz SZ40 cipher system, which they used from 1941 until the end of World War II in 1945. It was Flowers who developed the computer that was able to secretly decipher the messages of the Nazi high command.

Flowers was a British engineer that was hand picked by Max Newman to be part of a special team at Bletchley Park to improve the semi-automated decoding process of the Lorenzo Cipher. When Flowers arrived at  Bletchley Park in 1941 most of the decoding was being done by hand and on a rudimentary machine known as ‘Robinson’. The process was painstakingly slow and error prone.

Flowers proposed building a different type of decoding machine that was based on 1,800 thermion valves (vacuum tubes) that would serve as of series high speed reliable electronic logic gates. The idea was so radically different that his superiors refused to provide a budget for the project thus forcing him to fund a great deal of the project with his own money to the tune of over £1000. £1000 was a considerable amount of money in 1941 and Tommy Flowers was not a wealthy man.

During the time that Flowers and his team were building the Colossus at his Dollis Hill laboratory, 1941 to late 1943, the German’s improved their level of encryption several times on the Lorenz thus significantly reducing the number of intercepted messages that could be decrypted by the codebreakers and the Robinson.



Flowers first generation Colossus was delivered and installed on February 5, 1944, it was immediately put to work. The Colossus quickly doubled the codebreakers output and silenced the critics at Bletchley Park. The new computer eliminated the synchronised tapes of the Robinson, boasted superior speeds by a factor over 5 times and was also much more reliable, due to Flowers’ redesigned counters and the use of valves in place of relays throughout.

The Bletchley Park authorities immediately ordered 4 more units from Flowers and insisted that the next one be delivered by June 1, 1944. After many sleepless nights and considerable stress, Flowers and his team had Colossus II operational on time. The new machine was faster and more reliable than it’s predecessor. 

Code Breakers at Bletchly Park

Code Breakers at Bletchly Park

On June 5, 1944 the codebreaking team was able to successfully decode a message from Adolf Hitler to Field Marshall Rommel and other his high command leaders on the strategy for defending the Western Front (the Atlantic Wall) against an Allied invasion. Hitler believed that the Allied forces would invade Normandy as a decoy to draw the German defenses away from what he felt was their true invasion spot of France’s Pas de Calais region. Hitler had the Pas de Calais region well fortified and did not want his military resources to be redeployed to Normandy for what he believed was a red herring.  He ordered all of his commanders to stand firm for 5 days if the Allied forces launched an assault of Normandy as he didn’t want to weaken his strong hold positions.

Bletchley Park immediately passed the intercept onto the Americans and General Eisenhower  issued the order to launch a full scale invasion, known as D-Day, at Normandy for the very next day, June 6, 1944. He knew from Hitler’s broken communication that he would have the element of surprise and ample time to overwhelm the defending German forces on Omaha Beach.

remembering-d-day-1The hard fought victory for the Allies at D-Day was the turning point in the war in that it allowed the Allied troops the ability to advance by land into Germany. World War II was over with a year from D-Day.

The German high command continued to use the Lorenz Ciper Machines after D-Day but they changed the frequency of the encryption key decoding on a more regular basis. Several Colossus (aka Colossi) computers were dedicated to just breaking the ever-changing key decoding while several others were used to decode the actual communication. By the time the war ended in 1945 there were 10 Colossus computers in active service.

The entire Colossus program was classified,  8 of the Colossus computers were disassembled immediately at the conclusion of the war and the remaining 2 were disassembled in 1958-60.

For Tommy and Colossus, the work that was done at Bletchley Park was to remain a secret for a very long time. Tommy Flowers kept his word and remained silent about his contribution to the war effort. No doubt others benefited from his work, but Tommy did not. He never revealed these secrets, only doing so when the restriction was lifted.

The American Government was given the details of Colossus by the British Government as part payment for all the food and armaments America had supplied throughout the war. It’s rumored that many of the technical specifications of Colossus were shared with the team that was developing ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania.

The secret Colossus program was initially revealed by the USA’s Freedom of Information Bill in 1970 and the release of the information Britain had given the USA.

Recognition came after the release of the Colossus information but much too late to give Tommy any real benefit. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 1977, and another from De Montfort University in Leicester. More was planned. It became known that he was being considered for a knighthood, possibly in the New Years Honors List.  Sadly, Tommy Flowers died from heart failure at home in London on October 28, 1998. He was 92.

Flowers significant contributions in computer science have been credited by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower with shortening World War II by at least 2 years and saving at least hundreds of thousands of lives.



Duryea Motors – The 1st Commercial Car Manufacturer in America

Charles (left) and Frank Duryea in their 1893 Duryea gasoline car. From Outing magazine Vol 51 Pub. 1908

Charles (left) and Frank Duryea in their 1893 Duryea gasoline car. From Outing magazine Vol 51 Pub. 1908

Charles Duryea was born on this day (Dec 15) in 1861. Charles and his brother Frank were bicycle makers who in 1896 would go on to be the first to commercially serial produce vehicles in America. They did so under the name of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in what was the largest automobile factory in the United States at the time.

In 1886 Charles became interested in the operation of a gasoline engine which he observed at the Ohio State Fair and began designing an engine of his own. Over the next 7 years Charles and Frank designed a prototype of an automobile which utilized that engine.

In 1893 Frank Duryea publicly road-tested their first gasoline powered automobile known as the Buggyaut in Springfield MA.  The automobile was a wagon with a 4 HP single cylinder gasoline engine. There was much fanfare and the vehicle was deemed to be promising despite traveling less than 600 feet before a belt failed and ending the maiden voyage.

On Thanksgiving 1895 Frank won first place and $2,000 in prize money in the first motor car race in America driving an 1895 Duryea, which was their 2nd car produced. It was a 50 mile race that went from Chicago to Evanston and back that took about 9 hours at average speeds of just under 6 MPH.

Encouraged by their successes, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, MA produced 13 identical cars known as ‘The Duryea Motor Wagon’ by hand in 1896, 10 of which were sold in the United States. Their cars were the first commercial produced automobile available for purchase in America.

In May 1896 one of the Duryea Motor Wagons was involved in the first recorded automobile accident in American. In New York City motorist Henry Wells hit a bicyclist with his new Duryea. The rider suffers a broken leg, Wells spent the night in jail in the nation’s first traffic accident.

In 1898 the Duryea brothers went their separate ways and the Duryea Motor Wagon Company was closed over personal and business disputes.

Charles Duryea

Charles Duryea

Charles, eight years older than Frank had been known to take advantage of Frank in publicity and patents.

Charles was a visionary with more than 50 patents, and a shameless self-promoter whose ideas were brought to life by his younger brother, Frank, a master mechanical engineer with 20 patents of his own. (Vogrin, B)

Frank went out on his own and eventually joined with Stevens Arms and Tool Company to form the Stevens-Duryea Company which was sold to Westinghouse in 1915.

Frank Duryea

Frank Duryea

Charles tried to produce some of his own designs with various companies until 1916. Thereafter he limited himself to writing technical book and articles. He died in 1938.

Frank received $500,000 in the Westinghouse deal and lived in comfort on the Connecticut shoreline in Madison and then later in Old Saybrook until his death in 1967,  just seven months shy of his 98th birthday.

While not a commercially successful venture; The Duryea Motor Wagon Company did pave the way for mass production in the automobile industry by being the first to serially produce (and reproduce) identical cars for sale.



Eli Whitney – New Haven Entrepreneur of Guns, Cotton and Mass-Production

Eli Whitney

Engraving of Eli Whitney by Samuel F.B. Morse, c. 1822 New Haven Colony Historical Society

Eli Whitney was born on this day, December 8,1765, he lived to the age 59 and spent the majority of his adult life in New Haven Connecticut.

Eli Whitney is best known for two things: The Cotton Gin and Interchangeable Parts but in reality the unintended consequences of his life’s work brought riches for many and misery to many more.

The Cotton Gin (gin being short for engine) was a device that Whitney developed with his business partner and fellow Yale Alum Phineas Miller that provided a quick mechanized way to remove cotton seeds from bolls of cotton fiber, which until then was a time consuming and labor intensive process.

ginThe Cotton Gin provided for nearly a fifty-fold increase in output productivity over what a single person (generally a slave) could do by hand.

The efficiency of the Cotton Gin, along with several other advances in textile processing, transformed the economy of the South as it turned cotton from a marginal crop into a highly profitable global commodity. American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860. The profit opportunities created by cotton exports drove the increased demand for slaves to plant and pick cotton on Southern Plantations. The number of slaves in America grew in lockstep with the cotton industry from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860 to meet the demands of Cotton Growers/Slave Owners.

Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

Numerous historians credit the actual invention of the Cotton Gin to Catherine Greene or Hodgen Holmes while others seem to believe that African American slaves conceived the Gin, but it was Eli Whitney who patented it in 1794.

Despite having a patent on one of most transformative inventions ever, the Cotton Gin didn’t bring riches to Whitney or Miller as their product was knocked-off (pirated) on a large scale by most of the Cotton Growers in the South due to it’s simplistic design, their flawed business model and an extremely weak patent system in the United States at the time.

Interchangeable Parts – Guns

Eli Whitney sought and won a 2-year government contract to make 10,000 muskets (guns) for the Federal Government in 1798. Whitney was awarded the contract due to his notoriety with the Cotton Gin despite having no expertise in gun manufacturing.

Whitneyville Armory, Whitney's Fire-Arms, from an advertisement, ca. 1862 - Library of Congress

Whitneyville Armory, Whitney’s Fire-Arms, from an advertisement, ca. 1862 – Library of Congress

About a year into the contract Whitney received some materials on interchangeable part manufacturing that was being done in France and he decided to incorporate this idea into his manufacturing process. In the late 1700’s skilled Gun Smiths were very scarce, in high demand and expensive so he decided that if he could do component (or sub-assembly) based production of the guns so he could utilize semi-skilled laborers to full-fill his contract in a profitable fashion. Whitney developed innovative processes in milling for producing barrels, stocks…etc and workflow for labor component of assembling his finished muskets. There was a tremendous amount of trial and error involved in getting this new manufacturing process working properly and it took just about the remainder of his adult life to perfect it.

Eli Whitney delivered the balance of his 10,000 muskets on the initial contract but it took him nearly 10 years to do so, rather than the 2 years called for in the contract of 1798. The quality of the guns, after the first few years, earned him accolades by his newest client, The Federal Government, and many subsequent orders followed thus establishing Eli Whitney and Whitney Arms as a reputable source for quality armaments.

Whitney's Milling Machines were designed to cut precise repeatable patterns

Whitney’s Milling Machines were designed to cut precise repeatable patterns

Eli Whitney died of prostrate cancer in New Haven in 1725 but the innovative advances in manufacturing that he pioneered during his lifetime positioned New Haven to become the epicenter of gun manufacturing in the United States for much of the next 200 years. Familiar gun manufactures such as Winchester, Marlin, Mossberg, Colt and nearly 30 other less famous names all have their origins in New Haven thanks to the path that Eli Whitney blazed.

Whitney’s innovative production manufacturing processes, which included standardization and interchangeable parts, were the biggest steps in the development of the modern industrial age as they were emulated and adopted in many other successful manufactures in other industries.




December 1st is World AIDS Day

world-aids-dayWorld AIDS Day is observed each December 1st since being established in 1988 by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection.

The red ribbon is the global symbol for solidarity with HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS.

AIDS came to the forefront of public awareness in 1981 when people started suffering and dying from a mysterious pneumonia in Los Angeles but experts have since traced the origins  of the HIV virus to between 1800’s – 1920’s.

HIV type 1, group M (HIV-1), the predominant cause of the AIDS epidemic, is believed to evolved from  Simian Immunodeficiency Viruses (SIV) that crossed the species barrier from chimpanzees to humans between the 1800s and 1959, probably in the 1920’s, in Kinshasa, the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Screenshot 2015-11-30 13.14.57The earliest confirmed HIV case in humans was found in blood drawn in 1959 from a man in Kinshasa. Something presumably allowed a human infection with a chimpanzee virus to spread widely enough to evolve into modern HIV, which could spread easily among humans. The most commonly accepted theory is that of the ‘Hunter‘. In this scenario, SIV was transferred to humans as a result of chimps being killed and eaten (bushmeat), or their blood getting into cuts or wounds on the human hunter.

The area around Kinshasa was full of transport links, such as paved roads, Belgium-backed railways and rivers. It also had a growing sex trade due to the large numbers of male labors that were drawn to the city around this time. The high population of migrants, estimated to be at 1 million per year and sex trade might explain how HIV spread along these transportation routes.

HIV AIDS StatsHIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It’s the virus that causes AIDS.  When a person is infected with HIV, the virus enters the body and then lives and multiplies primarily in the white blood cells —the immu1_HIV-AIDS-Statisticsne cells that normally protect us from disease.

stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

As HIV grows in an infected person, it damages or kills specific immune cells, weakening the immune system and leaving the person vulnerable to infections and illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer.

Contracting HIVor AIDS (source:

HIV is spread from an infected person to another person through direct contact with some of the body’s fluids. It is not spread easily.

HIV is NOT spread by:

  • Air or water
  • Insects, including mosquitoes or ticks
  • Saliva, tears, or sweat
  • Casual contact, like shaking hands, hugging or sharing dishes/drinking glasses
  • Drinking fountains
  • Toilet seats

Treatments / Cure

There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, meaning that there is no procedure or medication which has been scientifically proven to reliably eliminate the virus from a person’s body or reverse the damage to the immune system.

There have been numerous advances in HIV treatments and therapies in recent years that have dramatically improved the quality of life of people with HIV, and more people are living much longer with HIV.

Protecting against HIV

In addition to avoiding risky situations that are known to cause HIV, there is a drug known as  Truvada that has been beneficial in the prevention of the HIV infection. It reduces the risk of HIV infection but it does not cure HIV. Studies found that giving it to people who are uninfected but at high risk of getting exposed to HIV could lower their risk of getting HIV by as much as 90%.

Closing & Resources:

HIV / AIDS is a global pandemic that has claimed 39 million lives since 1981 with another 37 million people currently infected. 1.2 million died of HIV /AIDS just last year (2014).

This blog post was created to bring awareness to the size and scope as well as the impact that HIV / AIDS has in the world today. It’s certainly a big problem that is  not just claiming millions of  lives but it is also significantly impacting the communities, families and friends of all of those afflicted.

Many companies, volunteers, governments and NGO’s are working hard to drive the number of infections to zero and while growth has been slowed considerably as a results of these worldwide efforts, we haven’t turned the corner yet.

Despite the largest number of active HIV / AIDS cases being in Sub-Saharan Africa,  HIV / AIDS is everyone’s problem.

Why Sustainable Clean Air Matters For Everyone

Killer Smog in Manhattan - Nov 24, 1966 - Photo by Andy Blair

Killer Smog in Manhattan – Nov 24, 1966 – Photo by Andy Blair

To look at the photo above one might think that it had to be taken in China or some third world country with extremely lax air pollution laws but this is a picture of New York City taken just 39 years ago today when a mysterious smog enveloped the City and took the lives of 144 – 170 people over a six day period.

The Thanksgiving killer smog was essentially a ‘perfect storm’ of weather and pollution that came about as a result of something known as temperature inversion, which is a blanket of stagnent cold air in the lower atmosphere capped by a layer of warm air above it that allows dangerous pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide to be trapped close to the ground and cause air pollution to spike to dangerous levels.

The 1966 Thanksgiving NYC smog event was not the first deadly incident of temperature inversion known to cause havoc on a large city as in 1948 Donora, PA – 20 people died and over 7,000 were hospitalized when sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust from the local zinc smelter was trapped in a blanket of pollution. 1952 London – 12,000 deaths were attributed to a temperature inversion episode that trapped large volumes of sulfur dioxide (Londoners were burning a lot of sulfur-rich coal). And of course smog and unhealthy air quality was a regular occurrence in Los Angeles.

Up until 1966 most people weren’t that interested in getting to the root causes of air pollution, or solving the problem, that is until the ‘dirty’ air literally took their breath away.

The 1966 NYC smog event created public awareness to the dangers of unchecked outputs from cars and factories as well  building density limiting air circulation and the lack of greenscape/plantings in large cities, which are all significant contributing factors to pollution levels and air stagnation.

Avalanche Exhaust - R. Bassett Photo

Vehicles account for nearly 1/2 of the carbon monoxide & nitrogen oxides in the air

1967 ushered in the Air Quality Act, which was an expansion of the 1963 Clean Air Act that didn’t apply to mobile sources of air pollution (cars, trucks…etc), then the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 was passed, where Congress greatly expanded the federal mandate by requiring comprehensive federal and state regulations for both industrial and mobile sources. The 1970 legislation provided for enforcement and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The regulatory compliance for clean air and the costs associated with it have been a political hot potato with business and industry throughout the entire existence of the EPA and remains so to this day.

Has the EPA helped? Since 1966 the air quality in the United States has gotten much cleaner as all modern cars are fitted with emission control equipment and factories are subject to strict air pollution limits and there has been a major shift away from burning coal, all of which has helped to improve the quality of air.

The big shift to offshoring/global manufacturing over the past 20 – 30 years has also helped clean up the air (and water…see a sequel coming?) in the United States as heavy industrial polluters have chosen to relocate their plants and their pollution to more ‘regulatory friendly’ countries instead of dealing with the requirements of the EPA.

The World's Population is growing at a rapid rate

The World’s Population is growing at a rapid rate

On the other side of the ledger  and our real modern risk with pollution is the explosive growth in population since 1966. The world’s population is currently 7.3 billion, it was 3.3 billion in 1966, it has more than doubled during the past 39 years. The population in the United States has also grown significantly in this period from 196 million to 326 million.

The increased worldwide population of 4 billion, including 130 million in the US, people means more cars, more products to be produced, more waste to be discarded, more methane, more landfills and on and on. The rapid population growth is putting tremendous strain on all global resources, environments and infrastructures.

In the US we continue operate under the ground rules of the 1960’s and 70’s with minor incremental and hard fought improvements  while the makeup and dynamics of the world have changed significantly since then.


While developed nations such as the US are enjoying cleaner air and water, it is essentially a zero sum global game as other parts of the world are suffocating from and choking on the waste from the production of low-cost goods being produced. Photos of polluted cities like the one above are often taken in places New Delphi, China and other parts of the world where manufacturing costs are low and environmental regulations are lax.

The opportunities going forward are finding creative sustainable global solutions for meeting the consumption, output and living requirements for the 7.3 billion people currenty living on our planet and getting ready for the steadily growing population moving forward.

More to come…..