I recently read a book called GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency by Richard J. Aldrich. Fear not, though, dear reader, this is not a book review.
The Enigma cipher machine.
The GCHQ is the British equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA), and is a direct descendant of Bletchley Park, where the British decoded German messages encrypted by the Enigma machine. It's also where the world’s first computer, the Colossus, was built. It was the stomping ground of Alan Turing during the Second World War, and according to Winston Churchill, the place where the war was won. In my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest technical museum for any electrical engineer is Bletchley Park.
Back to the book, which is about how the British monitor telecommunications traffic from around the world and decode it in order to provide “intelligence” for military and political purposes. It is a fairly weighty tome, long on facts and short on anecdotes. It is not a particularly easy read.
However, on page 400 I was wading through the description of the Falklands war when I came across this sentence: “The Argentinean Air Force's traffic was the hardest to read, since it had recently invested in a new encrypted communications system made by a subsidiary of the British defence company Racal, based in South Africa.”
“Just a minute,” I said aloud to myself, “that was mine!” Of course that is a bit of an exaggeration. I had designed the first prototype -- the proof of concept -- for the microprocessor that controlled the digital tuning of an existing radio to operate as a frequency hopping device. It was a very early application of a microprocessor and it synchronized the transmission, then controlled the calculation of the next frequency that the transmission would hop to.
The facts presented in the book are a little suspect, since by that time Racal had sold the organization to the South African company Grinaker Electronics, but perhaps Racal still held some shares or was responsible for international marketing. The book makes the point that when it comes to arms supplies there are some very strange bedfellows, so the fact that the system had gone to Argentina did not surprise.
What did surprise me was that my design should blindside me by crossing my path 38 years later, revealing my work in the hands of enemy forces. It felt really surreal to see my design again, almost like I was looking at the back of my own head. Maybe I have been around long enough to be on my second lap now.
Sir Robert Watson-Watt invented radar during the Second World War. He emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. Later in life, he was caught in a radar speed trap in Ontario. He is reported to have said to the police officer, "Had I known what you were going to do with it I would never have invented it!" He even wrote a poem about it:
Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
and thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.
His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly
but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist
and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.
Have you ever been blindsided by your own design?