06 May The rise of computers through the Second World War

Variant of Turings Bombe codebreaking computer. Image: National Security Agency

Version of Turing’s Bombe codebreaking computer. Image: National Security Agency


Festivities, carnivals and parties in the entire country. Yesterday we remembered and celebrated the end of the Second World War in the Netherlands, 5 May 1945. Perhaps you got a couple of drinksyesterday, watched some artists and had plenty of fun. Above all, a day not to think about your grades and essays. Although you probably don’t associate this day with science, the World Wars have stimulated a memorable scientific growth in the field of computers. So let’s talk some more about these scientific inventions.

It is easy to forget that we’ve only had access to computers for a century. Granted, there were some machines that made tasks like a population count easier, but they were nothing like the devices we use today. Before the Second World War, the term ‘computer’ was used to name the clerk that had to make the computations, instead of the apparatus he used to make calculations.

Accurate fire
Things began to change when entire buildings filled with clerks could not keep up with the production of guns to provide the necessary calculations that were needed to use these weapons. Let’s say we have a piece of artillery mounted on a brand new ship, like was the case plenty of times throughout the Second World War. To effectively and accurately fire this cannon, a trajectory had to be planned. Air temperature, angles, winds and even local gravitational conditions could all play a role on where the projectile would land. To determine how to compensate for these factors, gunners could use a firing table. It contained calculated data for around 3.000 trajectories, depending on the type of gun. Take a guess! How long does it take to create such a table? To calculate only one of these trajectories, a clerk would take one or two days. A typical table would thus tie up 100 clerks for about a month.

Consequently, a smart solution had to be invented. The differential analyzer, a mechanical analogue computer, turned out to be that solution. Even though it was already used since the beginning of World War I, the Moore School perfected it and was able to reduce the calculation time to 20 minutes per trajectory per clerk. One clerk could thus make one table in only a month and save a lot of time.

But what about the German Enigma? This infamous machine could encipher and decipher codes through the use of mechanical and electronic subsystems. It could be compared to a computer, only a bit less advanced than what the British had in mind. But why did it become so infamous then? Well, this piece of technology had been around since the early 1920’s. It gave the Allied forces a pretty serious headache in the early stages of the war. After all, don’t you want to read the letters your enemies are sending?

Another example of World War II technology is the Turing Machine or Bombe. Yes, the one you know from the movie. While Mr. Turing himself didn’t actually pick up the screwdrivers to begin building, he can be seen as the spiritual father of the hypothetical device. It helped the Allies by breaking the German Enigma codes. A side note should be made however. Turing based all his Enigma code breaking ideas on the work of three of his Polish colleagues. Nonetheless, he was a mastermind who, according to Eisenhower, helped in the decisive part of winning the war.

What now?
But are we dependent on war for further developments in computer science? The Internet is another example of a product developed for war efforts. Yet, luckily we can depend on a lot of industry players developing all new ideas for peaceful purposes nowadays. As you might have guessed, this was only a small selection. Do you know any other technologies that are a ‘happy’ consequence of war?


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WTF thomas

WTF thomas

Information Science and Intelligence Studies, Football Fanatic, Tech-junk, Zoetermeer, Daily commuter.
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