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Computing pioneer Tony Sale dies aged 80

Tony Sale, computing pioneer and the man behind the rebuild of the Colossus machine at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, has died aged 80.

Born on the 30th of January 1931, Anthony Edgar Sale - Tony Sale to his many friends - joined the British Computer Society as an Associated Member in 1965, cementing a life-long love of computers and computing machines. Elected to Member in 1967, Sale became a Fellow in 1988 and a Honorary Fellow in 1996, and spent time as its Technical Director.

In 1989, Sale was part of a group of enthusiasts who started the Computer Conservation Society, which aims to conserve and preserve computing heritage - and in particular examples of early British computers. It's a role for which Sale had a great passion: from his work in the Royal Air Force, the Marconi Research Laboratories, and MI5, Sale had been exposed to some of the best in computing machinery and wished to share that passion with the world.

Sale's best known achievement, a rebuild of the Colossus computer developed at Dollis Hill in 1943 as part of the war effort, lives on at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, where Sale could often be found tinkering with the machine. With all official records of the Colossus, one of the first electronic computers in the world, destroyed following the war, Sale led a team which rebuilt the machine from scratch using period-authentic parts.

"When I and some colleagues started, in 1991, the campaign to save Bletchley Park from demolition by property developers, I was working at the Science Museum in London restoring some early British computers," Sale wrote in a retrospective of the Colossus rebuild. "I believed it would be possible to rebuild Colossus.

"Nobody believed me. In 1993 I gathered together all the information available. This amounted to the eight 1945 wartime photographs taken of Colossus plus some fragments of circuit diagrams which some engineers had kept quite illegally, as engineers always do!"

As well as the now fully-working Colossus, visitors to the National Museum of Computing can also see Sale's robot George, built in 1949 and itself the subject of much media attention at the time. While the predicted future of robot butlers for all may not have come to pass, it's hard to see Sale as anything other than a visionary in his field.

"Tony’s contributions to The National Museum of Computing have been immense and I am quite sure that without his remarkable talents, enthusiasm, and drive, the museum would not have come into existence," TNMOC chair Andy Clark wrote of Sale's passing.

"The rebuilding of a functioning Colossus Mk II, Tony’s homage to the wartime codebreakers of the Lorenz cipher at Bletchley Park, is such a remarkable piece of work that it will forever be the model of excellence to which the museum aspires.

"Tony Sale's passing is a tremendous loss to us all on a personal and professional basis, but the foundations that he helped to lay are secure. Tony’s energy seemed boundless and, despite being ill in the past weeks, he continued to work diligently: being interviewed by film crews, talking to visitors and laying plans for the refurbishment of the Colossus Gallery. As his wife, Margaret, said to me: 'Tony's passing is not the end of his dream.'"

Sale is survived by his wife Margaret, three children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Photo of Tony Sale courtesy Gordon Tant Photography.