Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tutte tut

The Paroxysms blog has posted some interesting documents on the naming of the Tutte Institute obtained under the Access to Information Act. (Archived copy here.)

The Tutte Institute is CSE's classified cryptologic and data-mining research institute (previous post here), which is named after Bletchley Park veteran William Tutte. The institute was established in 2009 but officially opened and formally named the Tutte Institute for Mathematics and Computing in September 2011.

Among the most interesting bits in the released documents is a list of the individuals who were considered for the name of the institute and the criteria used for judging among them.

Eight individuals were considered, including four who are still alive. The latter four presumably received only cursory consideration as one rather crucial criterion was that the individual must no longer be living, and there is no indication in the documents that consideration was ever given to rendering non-deceased candidates compliant in this respect.

But here's what I find really interesting: Gilbert de B. Robinson was not one of the candidates considered!

Robinson -- no relation incidentally -- was a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was president of the Canadian Mathematical Society from 1953 to 1957 and served as managing editor of the Canadian Journal of Mathematics for 30 years.

He might also be called the father of Canadian cryptanalysis. He and colleague H.S.M. Coxeter were the Canadian mathematicians asked in 1941 to investigate how a Canadian cryptanalytic agency might be established. It was they who recommended that Herbert Yardley, the Examination Unit's first director, be recruited by Ottawa. Coxeter remained at the U. of T. during the war, but Robinson went on to become one of the Examination Unit's original employees, and he also served as its first (and only) Canadian director, albeit in an acting capacity. (More on the Examination Unit here.) He was awarded an M.B.E. for his wartime services, and returned to Toronto after the war, retiring in 1971. He died in 1992.

I want to be clear here. William Tutte was a distinguished mathematician and cryptanalyst, and the judges who chose to name CSE's institute in his honour may well have made the best decision. It certainly can't be characterized as a unjustifiable decision.

What astounds me is not that Robinson wasn't chosen, although if it had been my decision he would have been. What astounds me is that he wasn't even considered.

What the heck was that about?

[Update 8 January 2012:
Robinson was also the Canadian cryptanalyst who questioned Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko following his defection in September 1945.]

[Update 1 February 2012:

A further note on Robinson's post-Gouzenko role:
Gilbert Robinson, who had presided over the dismantling of the Examination Unit, was now asked to draft a "blueprint" for a revised code- and cipher-breaking team with all the bells and whistles. This he did, in four tightly typed pages of foolscap, calling for renewed agreements on the exchange of raw traffic such that "intercepts in a given language" could be obtained. He suggested they should start up the French section again under Sonia Morawetz, a twenty-two-year-old Czechoslovakian-born woman who had shown a flair for cipher-breaking. "Canada should stand on her own feet with regard to personnel from now on," Robinson stressed, underlining the words. "There is ample cryptographic talent and experience available here." (John Bryden, Best-Kept Secret: Canadian Secret Intelligence in the Second World War, Lester Publishing, 1993, p. 278)
Kurt Jensen's book Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51, UBC Press, 2008 (p. 132) mentions the same report.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for posting this...

I'm sure Grandpa (Gilbert) would have been very honored to read your blog...


December 08, 2011 3:51 am  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I have no information as to why Gilbert wasn't considered in the naming of the institute, but I have to suspect it was because the people who made the nominations weren't sufficiently aware of CSE's own history. An occupational hazard of working in the "ultra secret" world perhaps.

- Bill

December 08, 2011 9:20 am  

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