The Bill Tutte Memorial


More than 70 years ago, Bill Tutte made a breakthrough that shortened World War II and saved countless lives. He passed away in 2002 unknown to all but a few privileged people. On 10 September 2014, he was publicly honoured in his home town of Newmarket with a superb iconic sculpture reflecting his work. (See accompanying photographs.)

Bill Tutte's genius -- and his achievement has been described as the greatest single intellectual feat of World War II -- was to determine out how the German Lorenz cipher machine worked without ever having seen it. The Lorenz machine encrypted messages between Hitler and his High Command and by enabling Allied leaders to read those messages, the course of the war was altered. 

Tutte's success in understanding the Lorenz machine led to the development of Colossus, the world's first electronic computer that was designed to accelerate the breaking of Lorenz messages (known as Tunny by the Allies). The messages that Hitler believed could not be cracked were unravelled by a brilliant and humble mathematician from Newmarket.

In 1948, Bill Tutte emigrated to Canada, working first at the University of Toronto and then at the University of Waterloo, where he became an eminent mathematics professor, though no-one knew of his astonishing code-breaking success. He never spoke of his wartime work for decades and even when news began to be released in the mid-1990s, he said little. He passed away in 2002 just as his contribution towards the Allied victory in World War II was beginning to become better understood.  In 2012 the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote to Bill’s remaining family in Newmarket to express the Nation’s belated gratitude to him and the Town Council resolved to honour him with a memorial in the town centre.  In a touching irony, the memorial stands almost exactly on the spot where Bill Tutte's father had worked as gardener growing vegetables for the adjacent Rutland Arms Hotel.

Rather than create a traditional sculpture, perhaps of Bill Tutte hiking through the countryside (his favourite past-time), the renowned Cambridge sculptor Harry Gray has created a fine work of modern art in a setting by landscape designer Ramon Keeley. The installation resonates with references to Bill Tutte and his work. Six seven-feet high stainless steel panels pierced with holes represent the punched paper tape that the Lorenz messages were converted into to enable the deciphering process. In front of the panels, a 41-tooth rotor represents Tutte's breakthrough in determining the structure of the Lorenz machine. Inside the rotor is a quotation from the citation for Tutte's membership of the Order of Canada written in a way that is difficult to decipher. Six bollards resemble teleprinter tape passing over a spool and each bears Tutte's name on one side and encrypted messages on the other. Visitors are invited to crack the messages using a crib on the memorial information board, which also carries a QR code to take them to the website where the solutions are displayed.

But that's not all. There is a Squared Square made by Leon Russell of Mildenhall to represent Bill's early fascination with mathematical puzzles. Only when standing in the centre of the Squared Square, reflecting the unique way he looked at the problem of reading the messages the paper tapes contained, visitors will see the full image of Bill Tutte emerge on the steel panels.  There are also tributes on the memorial benches to Capt Jerry Philips, one of Bill Tutte’s contemporaries at Bletchley Park, who before his death in 2014 campaigned tirelessly for greater recognition of Tutte’s achievement, and Tommy Flowers, the GPO telephone engineer who built Colossus to run the algorithms that Tutte devised to read Lorenz messages.

The campaign for a Bill Tutte memorial was led by the Newmarket Journal.  A Bill Tutte Scholarship has been launched and is open to outstanding candidates from the Newmarket area who wish to study Maths or Computer Science at University.  Newmarket Academy has also set up The Bill Tutte Club, a free after-school activity to encourage local children to explore maths and science.

Anyone can donate to the Bill Tutte Memorial Fund.

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