Max Newman file photo [26644]

Maxwell Newman

Given NameMaxwell
Born7 Feb 1897
Died22 Feb 1984
CountryUnited Kingdom


ww2dbaseMaxwell Alexander Newman was born in Chelsea, London, England, United Kingdom in 1897, the son of a Jewish German immigrant named Herman Neumann who had married an English schoolteacher. Newman was educated at the City of London School where he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University. During the First World War, Newman, like the Saxe-Coburgs, anglicized his name to Newman and served briefly and reluctantly as a paymaster in the British Army.

ww2dbaseBetween the wars Newman tutored at Cambridge where he gained a formidable reputation as a mathematician and an appointment as a University Professor. He lectured a young Alan Turing (qv) and oversaw Turing's revolutionary paper "On Computable Numbers", a 1936 work, meshing far-sighted mathematics and philosophy, which inspired the visionary pioneering work on a hypothetical computing machine that would eventually herald the coming of the computer age.

ww2dbaseIt was during his time at Cambridge that Max Newman developed a close friendship, and the admiration of, Professor Pat Blackett who described Newman as a fine chess-player and expert pianist. Indeed, it was Professor Blackett who, in 1942, extended to Max an invitation to work at a top secret intelligence hub - the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. Newman was initially unwilling to accept the post, because he feared that the work would be insufficiently interesting. When he grudgingly accepted the appointment at the end of 1942, he did so on condition that he retained an option to leave after a year should he became unhappy. Few men, however distinguished, dared to make such a stipulation in the midst of a World War – and even fewer found it accepted.

ww2dbaseMax Newman's first months at Bletchley proved so frustrating that it looked as if he would indeed quit. He was not a great success as a codebreaker, but he initiated a critical breakthrough after studying an analysis, written by the talented W. T. (Bill) Tutte (a fellow Cambridge chemistry student turned mathematician), concerning the German non-Morse Lorenz teleprinter (know at Bletchley as "Tunny" or "Fish" because of its German name, Sagefisch) which used an entirely different encryption system to Enigma. It worked with tape, using binary digits as a means of encoding messages. Unlike Enigma, Lorenz was not a portable device. It was chiefly intended for use by the German High Command to communicate with their Field Marshals. Not surprisingly, British intelligence officers were eager to break into the "Fish" traffic. Colonel John Tiltman, the chief codebreaker at Bletchley Park was the first to do so, curiously by hand, but, since the start of hostilities, encryption technology had moved on and the Germans were continually adding additional security features to the Lorenz. It was rapidly realised by Bletchley that some technological method would be required to break the Lorenz encryptions.

ww2dbaseAlan Turing, newly returned from a long trip to the United States, and now exploring the science of electronic circuitry with Charles Wynn-Williams a circuit expert brought in from the Malvern radar research station, encouraged Newman to discuss his proposal for a machine to be built that could test for the Teleprinter's 1.6034 x 10^19 possible start positions with senior engineer Dr. Tommy Flowers, of the Post Office's Dollis Hill research station. Flowers, a belatedly recognised engineering genius, had earlier played a modest role in the creation of Turing's "Bombes" key finding machines. Newman, a gifted organiser with considerable diplomatic as well as intellectual skills, now assumed direction of a new Bletchley section, dubbed "the Newmanry" and successfully secured approval and resources for a research into identifying more advanced mechanical and electronic aids to codebreaking.

ww2dbaseUnder the supervision of engineer Francis Morell, the Dollis Hill engineers' solution to the Lorenz conundrum was to build a relatively primitive contraption inspired by the design by Wynn-Williams that was, with an element of self–deprecation, quickly dubbed "the Robinson" due to its similarity to the comical Heath Robinson drawings of mad inventions. The first arrived at Bletchley in June 1943 and was followed by a dozen stablemates by the end of the year, and more thereafter. A mass of wires and spools and paper tape the Robinson operated as a super-fast bombe, attacking the output of the German teleprinters by exploring punched tapes using the new technique of photo-electronics to read at the fantastic speed of 2,000 characters a second. The Robinson, worked with closed loops of tape that were pulled through the machine via a system of sprockets and pulleys, enabling the Bletchley codebreakers to read some Lorenz messages in the autumn of 1943, and hundred by the following spring. But its limitation, unfortunately, were mechanical – it had a maddening tendency for the synchronised paper tapes, which needed to run simultaneously, to break, and repeated valve failures made its usage fantastically frustrating. Nevertheless, it had proved that Professor Newman had hit upon the right solution even though what was needed was a rather sturdier device.

ww2dbaseDr. Flowers and his team at Dollis Hill again rose to the challenge. Their solution was a machine that would be called Colossus. Although not strictly a computer (it didn't have an internally stored programme) it was a very clear antecedent. The Colossus was first tested on 25 November 1943 and entered service at Bletchley in January 1944 was a marvel of electronics – extremely fast and effective. Before the war Tommy Flowers had worked on telephone technology in which electronic digital equipment that used huge numbers of vacuum tubes, and it was from this earlier work that his team were able to replace the fragile tapes of the Heath Robinson with around 1,500 electronics thermionic valves which allowed the machine to read 5,000 characters a second. A later Mark II model had around 2,500 of these valves and could read characters even faster. The first machine was followed by an order for eight more, as quickly as the engineering genius Flowers and his team could build them. Now the Newmanry could start breaking top-secret German messages from high ranking commanders up to Adolf Hitler himself.

ww2dbaseAfter the war almost all the codebreakers returned to academic life. Max Newman, the mathematician who had joined Bletchley reluctantly because he feared the work would bore him, told his section: "One of the prices of peace must be the losing of the most interesting job we've ever had", A grateful nation offered him only a lowly Officer of the Order of the British Empire (when scores of indifferent Generals, Admirals and Air–Marshals were being awarded knighthoods) which he rejected with scorn. Newman returned to teaching at Manchester University and continued to work on computer science until his retirement in 1964. At the age of 85, Newman began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease. He died in Cambridge on 22 Feb 1984.

Max Hastings, The Secret War - Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45 (William Collins, 2015)
Sinclair Mckay, Bletchley Park - The Secret Archives (Aurum press, 2016)

ww2dbaseNote: Max Newman's introduction of the talented engineer Tommy Flowers into the programme was not without some resistance from fellow codebreaker, Cambridge lecturer, Gordon Welchman. Flowers born in East Ham, a notoriously poor borough in east-end London, had been educated at night school and was consequently not quite trusted by the upper class gentleman academic.

Last Major Revision: Nov 2016

Maxwell Newman Interactive Map

Maxwell Newman Timeline

7 Feb 1897 Maxwell Newman was born at 54 Lamont Road, Chelsea, London, England, United Kingdom.
22 Feb 1984 Maxwell Newman passed away in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom.

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