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WW2 code-breaking machine has been reconstructed

08 April 2019

The Heath Robinson, a WW2 code-breaking machine and the inspiration for Colossus, has been reconstructed and is at The National Museum of Computing.

Unveiling Heath Robinson (Credit: The National Museum of Computing)

Irene Dixon, a wartime Wren who operated Heath Robinson and Colossus, and Peter Higginson, a great nephew of W Heath Robinson after whom the machine was named, were present at the launch on Saturday 6 April, where they met for the first time.

The Heath Robinson was an early attempt to automate codebreaking. It was specifically designed to tackle the hugely complex Lorenz cipher, used by Hitler and his generals to communicate strategic messages.

The complexity of the codebreaking machine resulted in its being named in honour of W Heath Robinson the illustrator, but he would never have known of this tribute because he died long before the secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park codebreaking ended.

Commissioned by the Newmanry which under Max Newman was attempting to automate codebreaking, most of Heath Robinson was built at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern. It became operational at Bletchley in June 1943 and was successful, but its limitations soon became apparent. It proved extremely difficult to keep its two tapes running in synchronisation, it required too many tape changes to tackle all but five of the Lorenz wheel patterns, it was not scalable and it required very high maintenance.

Tommy Flowers of the GPO laboratories in Dollis Hill, London, was asked if he could improve upon the Heath Robinson, but rather than modify it, Flowers proposed the development of Colossus to overcome the Heath Robinson limitations. Flowers’ use of valves in place of the synchronising tape on the Robinson was a vital breakthrough.

Even after the deployment of Colossus in February 1944, the Heath Robinson continued to be developed and used in tackling the Lorenz cipher. By the end of the war, two ‘Super Robinsons’ were operational and another two under development.

After the war, one Super Robinson went to Eastcote and was probably operational until the 1950s. Further development after the war led to Colorob, a combination of Robinson and Colossus, which became operation in 1955.

Paying tribute to the volunteer engineers who reconstructed the Heath Robinson, Andrew Herbert, chair of TNMOC, said, “Like their predecessors, the reconstruction team faced many challenges, even extending to a roof leak over the reconstruction in December 2018. But after seven years, the Heath Robinson reconstruction is ready to run again, an incredible achievement, adding yet more life to the story of Lorenz codebreaking at The National Museum of Computing. Visitors can now see the original German cipher machines and ancillaries alongside working reconstructions of the whole of the deciphering process from intercept to decrypt.”

For more information, visit The National Museum of Computing.

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