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Searching for Flowers in June

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In June 1944 the first of the Colossus Mk 2 computers was put into operation at Bletchley Park, England. Colossus was the first electronic programmable digital computer; the prototype, Colossus Mark 1, was shown to be working in December 1943 and was built at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, London by a team led by Thomas (Tommy) Flowers. Prior to his work on Colossus, he had been involved from 1941 at Bletchley Park in an attempt to improve the Bombes that were used in the cryptanalysis of the Enigma cipher machine and in June 1943 he had been made an MBE. Remarkably however, there is no Blue Plaque where he was born in Poplar, London to commemorate him.

Before Colossus there had been several electromechanical computers, but Colossus was the first production computer to use thermionic valves (vacuum tubes). It wasn't a general purpose computer as we know them today, Prior to the mid 1970's it was thought that the American ENIAC was the first electronic computer, however in 1975 the UK Government released records under its 30 year rule which had previously been kept secret under its Official Secrets Act, these showed a description of Colossus. Neither ENIAC or Colossus were general purpose programmable computers as we know them today, both were designed to solve particular problems and had limited abilities to change the program. Colossus was partly programmable to solve particular calculations involved in decyphering the German Lorenz codes, while ENIAC was used by the US army at its Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) to calculate ballistics tables.

Searching for people with names such as Flowers is an example of a homonym search term, homonyms are words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but may have different meanings. In this case the proper noun Flowers referring to a person and the common noun flowers referring to parts of a plant! There are many other personal names that present this problem - for example White, Black, Green, Brown, Tailor, Baker. Using dtSearch a case-sensitive index could be created to distinguish Flowers from flowers, but generally it is easier to add other search terms to narrow the search results. For example a Boolean search of "Tommy Flowers" and June would be one way of ensuring the results don't contain references to roses!

Another search problem is with terms such as thermionic valves or just 'valves' as they were known in the UK, these were known as vacuum tubes in the USA, and this is one of many differences in the English language that have to be taken into account when searching on document archives. Using dtSearch, the best way to ensure that alternative terms are also included in a search is to ensure that the option to include Synonyms is selected.

dtSearch uses a built-in WordNet thesaurus to add synonyms, and you can also add your own alternative terms by using the User Synonym feature or the User Thesaurus Plus add-on product. In this particular case a search for "vacuum tube" will also return results that include thermionic valve, tube, electron tube, thermionic tube and even thermionic vacuum tube! Similarly a search for "thermionic valve" will also find documents containing electron tube, thermionic tube, vacuum tube and tube. dtSearch Desktop makes it easy to check what search terms will be included in a synonym search, just press the Thesaurus button in the Search Dialog box, enter your search term and press the Lookup button.


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