Colossus, the world's first electronic computer, failed to beat modern technology after it lost the Cipher Challenge to decode messages transmitted by German radio hams using the same Lorenz SZ42 coding devices used by the German High Command in 1944.

The UK's National Museum of Computing had held the contest to mark the end of a 14-year effort to build a new Colossus system based on the original design. The museum is located at Bletchley Park, the estate near London where code-breakers worked to decipher German radio traffic during the second world war.

Within minutes of the messages being transmitted from Germany, and before even the vacuum tubes of the Colossus could be put to work, Joachim Schueth, a software engineer based in Bonn and an amateur cryptographer, submitted the deciphered test messages to Bletchley Park.

Schueth said on his website that he had written software to process the radio signals and identify the starting positions of the 12 enciphering wheels on the Lorenz machine. He said it took his PC - a notebook with a 1.4-GHz processor and the NetBSD operating system - 46 seconds to determine the rotors' settings.

Colossus was delayed by radio reception problems and a blown tube. But officials said it did decipher the coded messages, taking three hours and 35 minutes of processing time.

Not bad going for a 65-year-old computer.

Based on original reporting by Gregg Keizer, Computerworld.

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