William T. Tutte

Professor William “Bill” Tutte

English Canadian codebreaker and mathematician 

Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo

May 14, 1917 – May 2, 2002

A world-renowned codebreaker and mathematician, William “Bill” Tutte left an indelible mark on Waterloo’s mathematical community. Twenty years after his death, he still has a profound impact on students studying combinatorics at the University of Waterloo.

Born in 1917 in Newmarket, England, Tutte came from a modest background but would go on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was an active member of the Trinity Mathematical Society. “For him to make that rise is the stuff of storybooks,” said Dan Younger, Retired Professor Emeritus, Department of Combinatorics and Optimization, University of Waterloo, who was a Faculty colleague of Tutte.

Before Tutte made his way to Canada and helped shape the University of Waterloo into the institution it is today, he accepted an invitation to join a team of codebreakers working to decipher German codes in the Second World War. At Bletchley Park in 1941, Tutte was tasked with using samples of messages to uncover the structure of the machine generating German ciphers named “Fish”. Tutte successfully determined that structure without ever seeing the machine. Tutte then focused on developing an algorithm to decipher Fish codes, an algorithm that necessitated the creation of COLOSSUS, the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer, which was built in 1943. COLOSSUS played an essential role in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. Tutte’s codebreaking work was used to decipher Fish codes until the end of the war. It is believed that breaking those codes meant the war ended two years earlier, saving countless lives.

Tutte moved to Canada in 1948 and spent 14 years at the University of Toronto. He joined the University of Waterloo in 1962, just five years after the institution first opened its doors. He was part of a group who went on to found the Faculty of Mathematics in 1967 and was a founding member of the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization. 

Tutte played an integral role in building the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics. He helped establish the reputation of the school and attracted combinatorialists from around the world.

“He came when it wasn’t a fully developed university and it became a primary place for scholars in mathematics to come,” Younger said.

Throughout his time at the University of Waterloo, Tutte stayed quiet on his role as a codebreaker during World War II, as he was bound under the Official Secrets Act of Britain. Younger, who first met Tutte at a conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1963, said Tutte didn’t share much of his experience at Bletchley Park.

“He never did talk about what he did in the war,” Younger said. 

Younger joined the Faculty of Mathematics in its inaugural year and was promoted to Professor in 1975. He became good friends with Tutte outside of work, often on weekends hiking on trails in and around Waterloo Region. “It was just a nice relationship in which we really didn’t have to talk unless we had something to say,” Younger said. 

Tutte retired in 1985, but stayed on with the Faculty as Professor Emeritus. He acted as Editor in Chief of the Journal of Combinatorial Theory until he retired. Tutte died on May 2, 2002 at the age of 84. 

The University of Waterloo awards the William Tutte Centenary Undergraduate Scholarship every year, the highest scholarship given to a student interested in combinatorics. The scholarship, which is worth $1,500, is funded by donations from people inspired by Tutte’s work. The scholarship isn’t just a financial gift, though. It also comes with an homage to Tutte’s childhood in England.

“If one gets the scholarship, one gets a bicycle,” Younger said. The bicycle represents Tutte’s journey as a youngster to a high school in the town of Cambridge. He bicycled 18 miles to and from school every day starting at the age of 11.

William Tutte Way was named in Tutte’s honour at the University of Waterloo in 2017. The road connects the three Faculty of Mathematics buildings at the university.

Tutte was one of the foremost scholars in combinatorics. In addition to numerous awards throughout his career and into his retirement, Tutte was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001. The Canadian government founded the Tutte Institute for Mathematics and Computing (TIMC) in 2009.

“He certainly was the man,” Younger said.

Tutte’s academic legacy includes many students, including prominent scholars Dr. Ron Mullin, Dr. Scott Vanstone and Dr. Alfred Menezes.

Four generations of Mathematicians/Cryptographers. From left to right: Ron Mullin, Bill Tutte, Scott Vanstone, Alfred Menezes.

You can view some of Tutte’s accomplishments in the images below:

Profound Impact academic ancestry graph for Bill Tutte.

William “Bill” Tutte had a long, impactful career as a professor, codebreaker and mathematician. A Profound Impact career trajectory visualization details some of his most significant accomplishments.

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Ronald Cleveland Mullin

Ronald Cleveland Mullin

Dr. Ron Mullin

Distinguished Emeritus Professor, University of Waterloo 

Co-founder, Certicom 

A humble, dedicated professor and mathematician who is modest about his successes, Dr. Ron Mullin has made invaluable contributions to combinatorics, academia and cryptography. His career has spanned over 50 years with notable successes in both commercial and academic ventures. Along with Scott Vanstone and Gord Agnew, Ron Mullin co-founded Certicom, a leading cryptography company whose technology was licensed by the US National Security Agency (NSA), among many others, and later sold to Research In Motion (RIM), now known as  BlackBerry. Mullin was also Professor and Chair of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo and boasts one of the largest lineages in the Mathematics Genealogy project, with 20 PhD students and 180 descendants. 

“Teaching as a whole and getting good students and working with them, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Mullin. 

Even as a student, Mullin’s impact was profound. He was the first ever University of Waterloo graduate to receive an MA in mathematics in 1960. A bright and promising young mathematician and cryptology student, Mullin was recruited by the University of Waterloo to lecture while he completed his graduate studies. His skills were so impressive that the University’s head of mathematics used Mullin as bait to lure world class mathematician, who later was acknowledged as the World War II codebreaker and cryptography expert, William Tutte to the university with the intention of building out the department and recruiting top-tier talent. 

“It was quite an honour,” Mullin reflected, when asked about his role in attracting Tutte to the university. 

After completing his PhD under Tutte, Mullin went on to pursue a career as a professor at the University of Waterloo until 1996, rising the ranks from lecturer to distinguished professor emeritus and adjunct professor. Described by two of his former students as brilliant, encouraging and easy going, Mullin always left a lasting impression on those he taught, as well as his colleagues. 

“Ron taught my first computer science class,” said Alfred Menezes, one of Mullin’s academic grandchildren and professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo. “To him, the little details didn’t matter. He thinks about the big stuff – the important stuff…he realized the value of ideas.” 

One of those ideas became the foundation for Mullin’s commercial venture – Certicom, a leading supplier of wireless security solutions. Mullin was heavily involved in the company’s patent program. Certicom’s signature product was Elliptic Curve Cryptography, which speeds up the encryption process, utilizing shorter encryption keys without loss of security. This technology played a crucial role in the advancement of smartphone and other mobile devices and accelerated the growth of a number of companies including RIM. 

“One good thing about it – it’s fast and secure for certain kinds of encryption processes. And these turned out to be the ones that are very helpful in smartphones,” said Hugh Williams, retired computer science professor and Mullin’s academic son. “So in a sense, Scott, Gord and Ron realized this was a coming thing and they were quite skillful in introducing this company.”

After retiring from the University of Waterloo as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus and stepping away from his commercial ventures, Mullin went on to enjoy a second career at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He established a Cryptography Group at the university, a position he held until his “second retirement”, at the age of 75. Mullin also became the first recipient of the Stanton Medal, which is awarded by the Institute for Combinatorics and its Applications to honour significant lifetime contributions promoting the discipline of combinatorics through advocacy, outreach, service, teaching and/or mentoring. In addition, Mullin was awarded a doctor rerum naturalium honoris causa (Honorary Doctorate Degree) from the University of Rostock in Germany. 

While Mullin’s professional accomplishments are impressive, his legacy cannot be fully understood without including his mathematics genealogy. A number of graduate students that studied under Mullin became very prominent in cryptography and computer science including: Hugh Williams, who was instrumental in establishing one of Canada’s leading research centres in cryptography and information security; Scott Vanstone, world-renowned cryptography and co-founder of Certicom; Douglas Wiedemann, who designed an algorithm for linear systems of equations before joining the NSA; Bimal Roy, head of R C Bose Centre for Cryptology and Security in India; and Evi Nemeth, engineer, author and teacher who played a prominent role in the development of the Unix computer operating system.  

“He has had many students and ultimately, for an academic, that’s your impact – your students. What they end up doing and how they add to what it was that you did,” said Williams.

You can view some of Dr. Mullins’ accomplishments in the images below:


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