Colossus Computers

FOI request reference: CAS-68794-W8H4X7
Publication date: June 2021

Request

1) What material on the Colossus Computer Machines from Alan Turing/Thommy Flowers has been deposited in the National Archives since January 1944?
2) What material has been withheld in government departments?
3) What material on the Colossus Computer Machines from Alan Turing/Thommy Flowers has been requested since January 1944 and what is the status of all those requests?
4) Please release all communications between January 1944 and January 2021 between the National Archive and the public with respect to it

Outcome

Some information provided.

Response

I can confirm that The National Archives holds information relevant to your request and we are pleased to be able to provide some of this information to you.

We are unable to provide you with some of the information you have requested because it is covered by the exemption at section 12 of the FOI Act, which exempts information where the cost of compliance exceeds the appropriate limit.

Some of the information is also covered by the exemption at section 40(2) of the
FoI Act. This exempts personal information about a ‘third party’ (someone other than the requester), if revealing it would breach the terms of Data Protection Legislation.

For further information about why these exemptions have been applied, please see the explanatory annex at the end of this letter.

Your request and our response:

1) What material on the Colossus Computer Machines from Alan Turing/Thommy Flowers has been deposited in the National Archives since January 1944?

Following a search of our online catalogue, Discovery we have identified the following open records which are held at The National Archives in Kew. For further information on how to access these records please see the explanatory annex.

FO 850/234 – Annotated photographs of the COLOSSUS electronic digital computer.

HW 25/24 – A technical description of COLOSSUS I by D C Horwood, dated August 1973.

HW 25/34 – Colossus Working Aids. Colossus was the first computer, used at Bletchley Park for cryptanalytic work, in particular on Tunney, the German High Command on-line cypher. This folder contains various instructions and working aids for use by personnel manning the machine.

HW 62/6 – GC&CS miscellaneous papers: Equipment – Machinery, Volume III 1944-1945. Papers and correspondence on the development and procurement of equipment for Bletchley Park, notably ‘Bombes’ for breaking ENIGMA and the development of COLOSSUS, the first computer. Papers on construction of ROCKEX II encyphering equipment at Hanslope Park.

2) What material has been withheld in government departments?

The following records have been retained by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

HW 76/6 – Documents relating to the production of the description of ‘Colossus’: ‘Colossus’ research, drafts of technical papers on ‘Colossus’ and photographs.

HW 76/5 – Documents relating to the writing of ‘Colossus’ by Professor Randell, University of Newcastle upon Tyne: internal memoranda and drafts.

HW 76/7 – Internal correspondence concerning security of ‘Colossus’: notes on BBC programme ‘The Secret War’, ‘On Alan Turing and the origins of digital computers’ by Brian Randell, with comments, ‘Intelligent Machinery’ by A M Turing, ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ by A M Turing.

HW 76/8 – ‘Colossus: its purpose and facilities’.

The following record is held by the Second World War Experience Centre:

HF/LEEWW: 2000.336.2 Eighteen typewritten pages by Harry Fensom forming the basis of his proposed autobiography. The manuscript covers his early life and details of his pre-war work for the Post Office. It goes into great detail about his work at Dollis Hill and Bletchley Park, giving technical details on both the Heath Robinson and Colossus computers. He also covers his memories of the outbreak of war, the London Blitz and general living conditions in London during and immediately after the Second World War.

Additionally, the following records are held by Cambridge University:

AMT/B/27a – ‘Colossus and the Ultra secret’.

AMT/B/29a – ‘The Colossus’.

For further information on how to access these records please see the explanatory annex.

3) What material on the Colossus Computer Machines from Alan Turing/Tommy Flowers has been requested since January 1944 and what is the status of all those requests?

FO 850/234 is available for digital download on our online catalogue and 46 download orders have been made for this piece since 25th May 2013. The original physical record has been produced 13 times for members of the public.

HW 25/24 has been produced 29 times for members of the public.

HW 25/34 has been produced 26 times for members of the public.

HW 62/6 has been produced 45 times for members of the public.

HW 76/6 has been requested twice under the Freedom of Information Act and in both instances the requesters were referred to the government department which had retained the record.

HW 76/5, HW 76/7 & HW 76/8 have each been requested once under the Freedom of Information Act, and in all instances the requester was referred to the government department which had retained the record.

We do not hold information concerning requests for the records held by GCHQ, Cambridge University and the Second World War Experience Centre.

4) Please release all communications between January 1944 and January 2021 between the National Archive and the public with respect to it.

We are unable to release such communications held within archival records as the cost of locating, retrieving and extracting the requested information exceeds the appropriate limit. Consequently this information is exempt from release under section 12 of the FOI Act.

We have performed a search of The National Archives digital filing system and have located the following pieces of correspondence. Please find a copy of this material attached.

An email (14th August 2014) from Sherborne School, with an attachment concerning the catalogue of the Alan Turing archive held at Sherborne School for addition to the National Register of Archives.

An email (11th February 2019) from a member of the public concerning FO 850/234, enquiring whether it would be possible to download the record in a different digital format.

An email (15th July 2013) from Coventry University with an attached press release, containing preview images and documents from the BT Digital Archives. Included in the press release are images and short descriptions relating to the work of Tommy Flowers.

An email (13th August 2018) regarding a request by the Science Museum in Kensington to loan items for an exhibition. One of these, HW 78/2, contains an outline of a Colossus machine.

The names and contact details of members of the public and junior members of staff are considered to be the personal data of the individuals and therefore exempt from release under section 40(2) of the FOI Act. This information has consequently been redacted from the attached copies.

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-press-release-redacted.pdf

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-bt-digital-archives-press-preview.docx

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-sherborne-school-archives-redacted.pdf

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-sherborne-school-archives-alan-turing.docx

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-science-museum-loan-enquiry-redacted.pdf

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/f0068794-questions-on-colossus-imagery-redacted.pdf

EXPLANATORY ANNEX

Exemptions applied:

Section 12: Exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit
Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) makes provision for public authorities to refuse requests for information where the cost of dealing with them would exceed an appropriate limit, which for central government departments like The National Archives, is set at £600. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending just over three working days determining whether the department holds the information, as well as locating, retrieving and extracting the information.

We estimate that it will take us in excess of this time to identify the appropriate information, and locate, retrieve and extract it as the scope of your request is so wide-ranging. Therefore, part of your request, as described above, will not be processed further.

You may wish to consider refining your request, however please note that we are unable to guarantee that any refined requests would fall within the cost limit.

Further guidance on the application of this exemption can be found at: https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1199/costs_of_compliance_exceeds_appropriate_limit.pdf.

Section 40(2): Personal Information where the applicant is not the data subject
Section 40 exempts personal information about a ‘third party’ (someone other than the requester), if revealing it would breach the terms of Data Protection Legislation. Data Protection Legislation prevents personal information from release if it would be unfair or at odds with the reason why it was collected, or where the subject had officially served notice that releasing it would cause them damage or distress. Personal information must be processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner as set out by Art. 5 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In this case the exemption applies because the requested material contains the personal and the sensitive personal information of a number of identified individuals assumed still to be living. These individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy which would not include the release of this information into the public domain by The National Archives during their lifetime. To do so would be likely to cause damage and/or distress and would be a breach of the first data protection principle, which is concerned with the fair, lawful and transparent processing of information of this kind.

Further guidance on the application of this exemption cab be found here:
https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/2619056/s40-personal-information-section-40-regulation-13.pdf.