Post-war use of Colossus machines

Recent document releases at the National Archives in Kew show that the hardware from two Colossus machines was shipped to Manchester University in December 1945 (to accompany the human knowledge or ‘software’ transferred with Max Newman). The documents are found in file reference number HW64/59.

Newman, who was in charge of the Colossus section at Bletchley Park, returned to Manchester University at the end of the war and initiated a project there to build a ‘stored program control’ computer. He approached GCGHQ to see if agreement could be given to the salvaging of Colossus equipment for use in that project.

After visiting Bletchley Park in August 1945 with a colleague, Professor Jackson, Newman wrote to Colonel Wallace, the Deputy Direction (Administration) at Bletchley Park, that Jackson ‘thinks the proper request for us to make is for the material of two complete Colossi; and in addition a few thousand miscellaneous resistances and condensers off other machines’. These latter items were, Newman suggested, of no interest to commercial firms or to the Post Offices.’

Newman also specified that ‘We should like the counter racks and the ‘bedsteads’ (tape-racks) to be in working order but the rest could be dismantled so far as is necessary to make the circuits unrecognisable.’ He also asked if a punch and reader for 5-hole paper tape could be supplied.

The request must have been approved as in November the correspondence is revived with requests for transport. Newman says that the University has no lorries or vans at its disposal and ‘I don’t think either of us would relish sending it by goods train’.

The ‘two big machines’, as Newman described them, fitted into three large crates (roughly 2’6” x 4’ x 7’) weighing seven tons and were accompanied by a couple of tons of ‘smaller articles’.

Arranging secure transport took a little while as bureaucratic procedures were followed. GCHQ was now a civilian organization (part of the Foreign Office). ‘I have at last contacted the right person who will arrange for the removal of the articles in question’ wrote the Transport Officer at Bletchley Park to Wallace on 26/11/45. ‘He tells me however, that before they can be moved, payment must be made, or Form RHT2A must be filled up. Possibly this form could be obtained from service headquarters, as I understand there is some difficulty in a civilian department being able to obtain them’.

This obstacle was overcome and transport was arranged using two six-ton lorries plus a van to carry smaller items. A military escort was also provided, but he would have to make his own way back as the lorries would be going off somewhere else.

A flurry of letters results in agreement for delivery to take place on Friday 12/12/45. Wallace assured Newman that all was in hand. ‘The transport is being undertaken by our friends from Whaddon so there is no need for anxiety’.

New archive files found

Over a million files have been ‘found’ at Bletchley Park, many believed to relate to the Fish/Colossus story. Few details are currently available as considerable work apparently needs to be done to collate and catalogue the files, as well as develop suitable building space, before access to the files can be gained by researchers, so it may be some time before we know what new information is available about the story.

According to Metro newspaper (3/11/12)
: “more than a million Second World War documents are to be made available to the public for the first time. Files from Bletchley Park, the UK's wartime code-breaking headquarters, are to be digitised and put online in a large-scale project expected to take up to five years to complete. The Bletchley archive currently exists entirely in paper format and much of it is difficult to view, making it inaccessible to the general public. Until now, only limited access to the archive has been granted to academics and educators under strict supervision. Following an initial digitisation phase lasting around a year the documents, including communication transcripts, memoranda and photographs, will be made available for access using a combination of paid-for and free content. The project is the result of a collaboration between Hewlett Packard (HP) and the Bletchley Park Trust, which runs Bletchley Park's National Codes Centre and its museum and educational facilities.”