It was more than three decades after the end of the second world war that Britons learnt that something called Colossus – the world’s first operational computer – had existed at a top-secret location known as Station X, later revealed as the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire. Colossus had probably shortened the war and saved tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of lives by deciphering the Nazis’ Lorenz coding system, which was even more complex than the better-known Enigma machine. But Winston Churchill ordered it to be destroyed to keep it out of the hands of his new enemy, Joseph Stalin.
When Tony Sale, an early computer whizz and former “spycatcher” in Britain’s MI5 counter-intelligence service, learnt of Colossus in the 1970s, he decided to try to recreate the historic computer from scraps, wires, valves and other pieces from the era. The rebuilding began in 1993, with almost everyone except Margaret, his wife, thinking he was crazy. But his past MI5 clearance got him access to people, until then sworn to secrecy, who had helped build and operate Colossus. Using their notes and diagrams, and eight previously secret photographs of the original computer, Sale travelled around the UK, mostly to old post offices and telephone exchanges, to gather parts.
In 2007, when he was 76, Sale proudly unveiled the rebuilt Colossus and showed that it worked by deciphering a coded message from Germany. The computer is now a centrepiece of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, which he co-founded, the largest collection of working historic computers in Europe and a tourist attraction.
Tony and Margaret Sale first funded their plan to preserve Bletchley Park out of their own pockets. John Major, British prime minister at the time, became a powerful supporter and funds began pouring in from the Heritage Lottery Fund and private donors. Sale was later enlisted as an adviser on television documentaries, as well as the films Enigma, starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet, and Breaking the Code, a drama featuring Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing, Bletchley Park’s famous gay computer scientist.
Anthony Edgar Sale was born in Chepping Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on January 30 1931, and attended Dulwich College, an independent boys’ school in south-east London. At age 12, he built his first primitive robot, which he called George, from a Meccano toy construction set. George I, as he would later be known, had a miniature motor to help him shuffle along. A later model, George V, which Sale built when he was 19, was a 6ft-tall, radio-controlled robot who walked on his own. George V, built from parts of a crashed Wellington bomber, soon became a star of British newspapers and Pathé newsreel coverage.
After his two-year national service in the Royal Air Force, Sale worked for the Marconi electronics company. In 1957, he was hired as a radio interceptor by MI5, a key post at the height of the cold war. Together with another engineer, Peter Wright, who later became famous as the author of Spycatcher, he monitored Russian communications stations in London from a converted builder’s van. After leaving MI5 in 1963 as its “principal scientific officer”, he launched one of the UK’s first computer software companies, Alpha Systems.
In 1989, he was hired as senior curator of the Science Museum in London’s South Kensington. While there, he helped establish the Computer Conservation Society, aimed at preserving computer history and restoring computers and software.
In 1991, on learning that the Bletchley Park estate, at the time a training establishment owned by British Telecom, might be bought by property developers, he and his wife launched their campaign to save the site and turn it into a museum.
Sale remained directly involved with the Bletchley Park museum until his recent illness, personally showing tourists around his Colossus. He remained a keen follower of fencing and motor racing, cutting a dash in the country lanes around his home in his 1937 MG TA sports car. Last year, at the request of the makers of Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention, a BBC TV programme, he rummaged through his garage and dug out his robot George V. Powered by fresh lithium batteries, George strutted his stuff for the cameras and later received widespread attention in the British media.
Sale, who recently greeted Queen Elizabeth when she visited Bletchley Park to unveil a memorial to war veterans, will be honoured this weekend at the museum’s annual reunion of veteran codebreakers.
Tony Sale died in Bromham, Bedfordshire, on August 28. He is survived by his wife and three children.
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