When it comes to electronic computing, especially the early days, we all know about Gödel, Turning, Church, von Neumann etc as the primary pioneers of our industry. All great minds and massive contributors to the field, of that there is no doubt. However they all did their work for the most part in theory. Its all well and good to get the basics right and do dry runs until the cows come home. However who actually built the first of the electronic computers?
Many people would say it was Alan Turing. While Turing, genius that he was, certainly had a huge hand in the design and science of electronic computing, it fell to a postman to actually build Turing’s theoretical design. Well I say postman…in reality a highly skilled engineer, and well as far as I’m concerned, genius in his own right.
Tommy Flowers was born in London’s East End in 1905, the son of a bricklayer, The Edwardian period was not really one of upward mobility or even one of government subsidy to help the less fortunate. However Tommy Flowers was one of those rare breeds who let his inner nerd to flourish by all accounts and managed to get an apprenticeship with the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London. For someone from his background to achieve such a position must have been quite the achievement. With most likely a rudimentary education he must have impressed those who took on the new apprentices. The East End in 1905 was not a flourishing centre of intellectual curiosity or education after all.
Not content with being “just” an apprentice at The Arsenal (Great Britain’s primary weapons development/production facility from the late 17th century to the beginning of World War 2, it was finally closed in 1967), Flowers decided to take his nerd to the next level and took a night degree course in Electrical Engineering at the University of London.
In 1926, not content with blowing stuff up, he joined the GPO or General Post Office in the telecommunications department. He managed to show that he had not only technical ability in terms of repairing and installing kit but also a fine mind in design and more importantly. ideas which he could get to work. With that he managed a move to the GPO’s main research centre at Dollis Hill, London. Here he had, by all accounts, an immediate impact on developing new technologies.
Thanks to his work with electronic exchanges, he was very much suited to his eventual pivotal role in World War 2, when he built Colossus, the first programmable digital electronic computer.
Not bad for a bricklayers son from the East End!
For better and more detailed read there is a pretty concise wiki entry for my hero, Tommy Flowers.