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Posted: 07:09:53 PM, 22/12/2014

Just when you are least expecting it

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I recently read Richard J. Aldrich's GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most sensitive intelligence agency. The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's equivalent of the NSA, is a direct descendant of Bletchley Park, where the British decoded German messages encoded by the Enigma machine and where the world's first programmable electronic digital computer, the Colossus, was built. It was the stomping ground of Alan Turing during the Second World War and -- according to Winston Churchill -- where the war was won. In my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest technical museum for any electrical engineer is Bletchley Park.

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Back to the book, which is about how the British monitor telecommunications traffic from around the world and decode it to provide "intelligence" for military and political purposes. It is a fairly weighty tome, long on facts and short on anecdotes. It is also 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 new encrypted communications made by a subsidiary of the British defence company Racal, based in South Africa."

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"Just a minute," I said aloud to myself, "that was one of mine." Actually, this is a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, I had designed the first prototype -- the proof of concept -- for the microprocessor that controlled the digital tuning of a radio to operate as a frequency-hopping device. It was a very early application of a microprocessor. It synchronized the transmission and then controlled the calculation of the next frequency to which the transmission would hop.

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The facts presented in the book are a little suspect, since by that time Racal had sold the organization to a 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 this system had ended up in Argentina did not surprise me too much. What did surprise me was that this system should come back into my life 38 years later. It felt really surreal, 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.

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All this reminded me of the British engineer Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, was a significant contributor to the development of radar during the Second World War. He emigrated to Canada in the 1950s and -- later in life -- 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:

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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.
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Does any of this strike a chord with you? Have you ever been blindsided by your own design? If so, it would be great if you would share your experiences in the comments below.

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Aubrey Kagan

Engineering Manager

Emphatec

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