Max Newman was a cryptologist at Bletchley Park during World War Two and gained a reputation for his brilliant mathematical mind. Older than many others at Bletchley Park, Newman also had a different upbringing from the majority who worked there.


Max Newman was born on February 7th 1897. His father was a German who had moved to England for a fresh start. Herman Newman worked as a company secretary and his English wife, Sarah, was a schoolteacher. His life was disrupted by World War One. His father was interned as an alien in 1914 and despite winning a scholarship to study Mathematics at St. John’s College, Cambridge, his post-18 education was disrupted and prolonged. Newman was awarded a first for his first year of study at St’ John’s but he then had to do military service. In 1916, he had changed his name from Neuman to Newman by deed poll (as did his mother in 1920) and he was called up in February 1918. He declared himself to be a conscientious objector but he also used his father’s German background to avoid fighting.


Newman resumed his studies at St. John’s in 1919 and graduated in 1921 with a first class degree in Mathematics. Two years later he was appointed a Fellow of St. John’s and became a lecturer at Cambridge in 1927. In 1935, Alan Turing attended one of Newman’s lectures.


When World War Two broke out Newman remained teaching at Cambridge. However, in August 1942, he joined the staff at Bletchley Park. Any fears he had about his father’s nationality were soon dispelled. In fact, Herman Neuman had been Jewish and many in the UK knew about the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Newman assumed that because of his background he would not be involved in any secret work. However, he was wrong. The managers at Bletchley Park recognised his mathematical ability and assumed that he would make a positive input into the code breaking activities being worked on there.


Newman initially worked on the Tunny project but he did not believe that this best used his ability. He persuaded his superiors that code breaking could be mechanised. If he could achieve this, then the whole process would be greatly speeded up and the boost for British Intelligence would be huge. Newman got his way and was allowed to start to build his own code breaking machine. Newman started in January 1943 and the first prototype was ready by June 1943. His team nicknamed the machine ‘Heath Robinson’. It was this machine that Tommy Flowers was asked to repair. The ‘Heath Robinson’ frequently broke down. On paper the machine was capable of decoding 1000 characters a minute. But it broke down so frequently that invariably the reliability figure for the machine was a lot lower. To what extent ‘Heath Robinson’ propelled Flowers into believing that he could make a better and more reliable machine is not known. He did examine Newman’s creation and worked on his own. The final machine – Colossus – is recognised as the world’s first computer.


After the war ended, Newman, along with all the other code breakers, was sworn to secrecy so no one knew about ‘Heath Robinson’ – the precursor to ‘Colossus’. Newman taught at Manchester University and continued his work on computing.


He died on February 22nd 1984.


December 2011