Technology in Topsy-turvy Post-war Britain
Britain in the 1950’s and 1960’s seemed to be running at two speeds. The Attlee government had shaken the foundations of society with the creation of the first welfare state. Veterans recently returned from the war, and the armies of civilian labour who had kept the country’s industries working during their absence, were impatient for social improvements, jobs and education. Technological developments in transportation, communications and computing were irrevocably changing the speed at which business could be transacted, and demonstrating how quality of life at all levels of society could be radically improved.
But the old order was reluctant to accept the inevitability of change and the huge potential that electronics engineering offered to deliver economic prosperity. Britain’s Civil Service was still run by mandarins of the imperial establishment to whom ‘technology’ was a derisory occupation ranked somewhere below ‘trade’. As a result, the entrepreneurs struggling to build a computing industry in Britain found it difficult to find sympathetic or understanding allies in government.
One new technology, the production of atomic energy, did capture Whitehall’s imagination, but while the government backed the 1957 opening of the first industrial-scale atomic power station at Sellafield in Cumbria, it deliberately ignored home-grown computer manufacturers with its ‘buy-American’ policy. When challenged it upheld this policy as a way “to encourage inward investment”.
On the street, things were starting to look up. The rush to build housing to meet domestic demand, and the push to produce exports to balance the country’s trade deficit, fuelled a consumer boom that inspired a national ‘feel good’ factor. British ingenuity was claiming pride of place in rapidly expanding global markets. The Vickers Viscount was a huge success in the new commercial airline industry, the Jaguar and Austin Mini captured the luxury sports and economy segments of the motor vehicle markets, and British music, fashion and design were setting trends around the world. London was once again claiming centre stage, a position that inspired many young Britons with entrepreneurial instincts to dream of changing the world.
Despite this, the economy struggled under the burden of war debts, the cost of two additional conflicts (Korea and Suez), and the French veto of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community. Moreover, the winds of change were slow to reach the old combatants in UK plc – management and the unions. Britain’s productivity levels were among the lowest in Europe and labour unrest was growing, while politicians and company directors made a series of poor decisions that resulted in the decline and/or failure of several key businesses and industries.
The persistent lack of support from government and an unhealthy industrial climate combined to drive many of Britain’s best technological developments off-shore, to countries that were quick to identify and capitalise on their commercial potential. It was 1964 before a government administration acknowledged the importance of a technology industry to the future of the British economy. Declaring that the Britain of the future would be forged in the “white heat of the scientific revolution”, Labour’s Harold Wilson created the first Cabinet post to oversee the development of British technology.
From 1966 to 1970 this post was held by Tony Benn, who demonstrated his staunch belief in the need to break down the old order by renouncing the peerage he inherited from his father, Lord Stansgate. Despite Benn’s tireless energy, however, the government’s ambivalence to direct interference in the affairs of business remained a millstone around the necks of young visionaries who needed direct government support to help them build a domestic industry in the face of growing competition from the US.
An Invitation to Dinner
Among its many scientific achievements, Britain was at the forefront of the development of the modern computer. One hundred years after Charles Babbage produced his mechanical Analytical Engine, a team working at the Bletchley Park code breaking centre used electronics to speed up the calculation process. Their Colossus code breaking machine is cited by many as the earliest modern computer. For others, however, the true origin of the modern information society was the design of another Bletchley Park alumnus, Alan Turing, for a stored programme computer. Turing’s blueprint formed the basis of the first working machines built by rival teams at Manchester (Baby) and Cambridge (EDSAC) universities.
Remarkably, the first commercial computer was built by a catering company, J Lyons Ltd, to manage stock control for its chain of teashops. Inspired by research from Cambridge, the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) was sold all over the world, but the company, unable to obtain the finance it needed to expand, was eventually merged into International Computers Limited (ICL), Tony Benn’s attempt to create a British computer company that could compete with world leaders, IBM. Although the country clearly lacked the conditions to exploit its developments in the commercial marketplace, its research and technological expertise was recognised around the world. American companies were keen to gain access to British technology and often did so through joint ventures. For example, in the early 1960’s the National Cash Register Company teamed up with Elliott-Automation to provide that company with much needed marketing muscle, first for the National Elliot 400 series and later the 803, the first solid state processor, which was partly designed by RTC member Iann Barron while still a student at Cambridge.
But despite Britain’s early technological lead, by the time Alan Marshall arrived in London from the US in 1967 to start a branch of his software house, Computer Systems International (CSI), the struggling British computer hardware industry comprised only a handful of major players (ICT, English Electric, EMI and Elliott-Automation). Working quietly at the fringes, there was also a small but influential group of researchers in the academic community, and an equally small but determined group of entrepreneurs running service and software companies.
As one of the early members of the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) design team based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marshall had spent ten years working on radar technology, “the essence of real time computing”, for the US Air Force and Navy. In 1964 he left to take up a project in Sweden, where he stayed to start his software house, CSI.
Three years later he decided to expand his business into the UK market. Soon after his arrival in London he began to seek out people who shared his interest in the commercial possibilities of high speed data processing. With the assistance of freelance computer journalist Rex Malik, he met several of this new breed of entrepreneur, starting with Dick Evans, who had founded Timesharing Limited based on a licence from Bolt Beranek and Newman in Boston, Massachusetts.
Evans put him in touch with a number of others, including Stanley Gill at Imperial College; Jim Foord at Rolls Royce; Roger Needham at the Cambridge University Mathematics Laboratory; Donald Davies at the National Physics Laboratory; Paddy Sanford-Johnson at Rank-Xerox; Pat O’Donnell at the International Publishing Company (IPC); Keith Corliss of CEIR; H. Lane of Shell Oil; Peter Herman of BOAC; Philip Hughes, who founded Logica; Roger Wesson of Vickers; Derek Carter of Hawker Siddeley Dynamics; and Charles Ross, who had just sold his group of real-time computing companies to International Publishing Corporation (IPC) to set up International Data Highways Ltd.
Although they were all working at the same technological frontier there had been little time for communication between these pioneers, so rather than pursue each of his new contacts individually, Marshall invited them to a dinner to get acquainted. Eleven people accepted his invitation. Marshall distinctly recalls that Mark Thompson, Managing Director of CSI, decided not to attend, as his presence would make the numbers up to an unlucky thirteen! The choice of venue, everyone agreed, was pleasingly ironic – here was a group of youthful entrepreneurs bent on revolutionising the old order, dining in the Georgian opulence of the Establishment’s symbolic citadel, the Institute of Directors’ headquarters on Belgrave Square.
Talk over drinks and dinner revolved around the challenges of building a software and computing services industry in the post-imperial, post-war climate of 1960’s Britain. Towards the end of the evening, each diner was invited to introduce himself and his interest in real time computing, and it was agreed to meet again. Calling themselves the ‘Real Time Users Group’, the diners published notification of their first official meeting, held on 27th June 1967, in both the Financial Times and the Guardian.
Although the group was first and foremost a dining club, the ‘Real Timers’ quickly recognised that collectively they had the power to influence the political, commercial and social environment within which they were trying to build a new industry. There was an unwritten agreement that they would be able to exert pressure within the industry more effectively if the major hardware suppliers were excluded from their meetings, but journalists, politicians and civil servants were seen to be more advantageous allies, and these were to be invited as both members and presenters over the years.
Exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall
The creaking telecommunications infrastructure in 1960’s Britain was a major inconvenience to commercial and private users alike, but members of the fledgling Real Time Club felt they were paying an unduly high price in terms of lost business opportunities for themselves and their industry.
According to an article appearing in the 5th November, 1966 issue of Business Week magazine, Intinco Ltd, a company co-founded by Charles Ross, had introduced its revolutionary SCAN (Stockmarket Computer Answering Network) system to traders on the London Stock Exchange at least four months before a similar real time system would be available on Wall Street. In the post war race to establish national excellence in emerging technologies this was a real coup for Britain, yet the delays in obtaining new telephone lines meant that London clients were waiting up to six months to have their systems operational.
For Dick Evan’s Timesharing Ltd, Britain’s first online service bureau, the shortage of exchanges and poor quality of lines was creating both service and cash flow difficulties at a critical time in the company’s development. Problems like these were being echoed around the Real Time Club dinner table, so it wasn’t long before some members of the group began to think of ways to convince the General Post Office (GPO), which operated the national telephone network at the time, to upgrade its infrastructure.
In early 1968 a small sub-group of Real Timers, led by Ross, proposed a demonstration of Britain’s capability in shared access systems, aimed primarily at the House of Commons’ Select Committee of Science and Technology. Major General L.E.C.M. Perowne of the Royal Corps of Signals was appointed to organise what would turn out to be the first exhibition of all the on-line, real-time computer services available in the country at that time.
In his initial planning document, Perowne stated that the group’s objectives were “to demonstrate to important members of the Government Departments concerned … the progress being made in this area of computer application in business; and to show that, in this context, the technological gap between the UK and USA has been substantially narrowed, if not eliminated.”
The longer term objective, Perowne continued, was to “influence Government to ensure the timely provision of adequate resources, particularly in telecommunications, to enable full benefit to be derived from the revolutionary developments in technique now entering the stage of practical application on a wide scale.”
In other words, don’t let the GPO hold back progress in Britain!
Planning for the event, which they called ‘Conversational Computing on the South Bank’, commenced in April and proceeded with military precision. The Meeting Room of the Royal Festival Hall, chosen for its close proximity to Westminster, was hired for the 3rd of July 1968, when eleven organisations would demonstrate their systems. Professor Stanley Gill, Director of the Centre for Computing and Automation at Cambridge University and President of the British Computer Society, agreed to Chair a presentation, with several of the more influential guests invited to attend a luncheon for further discussions.
The group aimed high in composing its guest list. Tony Benn, as Minister for Technology, declined his invitation, but his Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Dr Jeremy Bray, accepted. The Select Committee, chief target of the demonstration, was unable to accept in an official capacity because to do so would mandate a report back to the House of Commons, but several interested members managed to attend individually – despite competition for their time from a Test Match, the Henley Regatta and Wimbledon!
Many of the systems on display were at the forefront of global developments. Guests were able to view working demonstrations from the University of Cambridge, Queen Mary College (University of London), Timesharing Limited, Culham Laboratory (UKAEA), Atomic Warfare Research Establishment, the University of Edinburgh, the National Physical Laboratory, De La Rue Bull Machines Limited, International Data Highways Limited, British European Airways and The Rank Organisation.
With the support of the Postmaster General, Perowne had been able to get ten special telephone lines allocated for exhibitors’ use, so that all the systems were online to computers located around the country for the duration of the exhibition. JHH Merriman, the GPO’s Senior Director of Development, was appointed to make a statement outlining what the GPO was doing in the matter of data transmission lines for the future.
To the surprise of many, the text of Merriman’s speech re-affirmed the GPO’s conviction that its existing programme for infrastructure development was sufficient to meet all forecast voice and data transmission needs for the foreseeable future. He lauded the GPO’s own Datel system for data transmission, and somewhat arrogantly threw the ball back at the Real Timers with a series of ‘what do you guys really want’ questions. Imagine their sense of vindication, when, at the height of the show, as live demonstrations were in full swing, the telephone lines carrying data traffic to and from the exhibition hall juddered to a halt!
Merriman managed to come up with a list of GPO ‘over-ride’ numbers that enabled the show to continue with few people realising what had happened, and Perowne graciously made no mention of this glitch in his summing up report, wherein he noted that many of the 200 Members of Parliament, Senior Civil Servants, industrialists and academics had expressed keen interest in what they had seen.
For the ambitious Real Timers, however, Dr Bray’s invitation to submit, in writing, a considered response to Mr Merriman’s exposition on behalf of the Post Office marked the real success of the day and the beginning of four decades of the challenge and influence that would come to define the Club.
What the Real Timers were intent on achieving was no less than the creation of the first universal data network – in effect, the Internet as we know it today. Their vision stemmed from the work of Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory, who had developed the original packet switching algorithms. It was his design for a Stored Program Computer Controlled Data Transmission Network that opened the possibility for a telecommunications infrastructure of sufficient speed, quality and cost effectiveness to enable the kind of business traffic envisioned by the early real time service creators.
Their concerns were twofold: firstly, the Americans had seen the packet switching technology and were moving rapidly to overcome their own internal barriers to implementing a national network; and secondly, demand for such a service in the UK was driving an alarming growth in privately developed networks that would be incompatible with each other. The Real Timers knew that Britain’s economic growth could potentially be retarded for decades if the country did not develop its own national infrastructure quickly.
So over the next two years, while the Club continued to meet, dine and debate on a regular basis, several individuals worked tirelessly to capitalise on their Royal Festival Hall triumph and continue lobbying for a change of GPO policy.
In the weeks following the Festival Hall demonstration, a steady stream of coverage in the press kept the Club’s position firmly on the public stage. The leading national and industry papers watched developments closely, as the following quotes make plain:
“yesterday the deep division in opinion on how [shared computer services] should be provided in Britain between the Post Office on the one hand and users and makers of time-sharing systems on the other was made abundantly clear.” (Financial Times, 4th July, 1967)
“Among questions basically left unanswered at the seminar were the effect on both the economics and efficiency of the GPO network of long period data transmissions calls … on a network designed for use in time periods of minutes” (Computer Weekly, 4th July, 1967)
“The benefits claimed by the NPL proposals are immense” (Electronics Weekly, 10th July, 1967)
Several Real Timers used the access they had to Members of Parliament to have judiciously worded questions asked in the House, and politicians from all parties were regularly invited to attend Club dinners.
In August 1968, Lord Bowden of Chesterfield convened a working party with a mandate to investigate the feasibility of establishing a network as set out in Davies’ proposals and Gill’s speech at the Royal Festival Hall. At the same time, Dick Evans, Philip Hughes and Stan Gill began work on a major technical paper that was presented to the Post Office Economic Development Committee on 28th November, 1969. Entitled, Real Time Computing Systems: The Communications Problem and Possible Solutions, this 40 page document explored both the nature of real time computing and the problems with current GPO systems, proposing designs for the kind of store and forward network the group believed was needed.
By this time, the issue of the telecommunications system in the UK was gaining wider interest, and the Club managed to recoup some of the cost of producing its report by selling over 250 copies. More importantly, the GPO seemed finally to be taking notice. In May 1970, coinciding quite remarkably with a presentation by the Real Time Club to Sub-Committee ‘D’ of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, an outline proposal for a data network – identical to the design proposed by the Club – was circulated and discussed within the Post Office. By April 1971, Merriman himself gave a policy statement which included a target date for implementing such a network.
But the process was painfully slow for the Real Timers. In a further Memorandum of Evidence, this time submitted to Sub-Committee ‘A’ of the Select Committee on Science and Technology in April 1971, they noted:
“In July 1968 we gave two forecasts: one pessimistic and unacceptable, and the other desirable. The pessimistic forecast envisaged a policy statement in 1970. Events are lagging behind even this …”
Eventually, the GPO accepted the suggestion that a pilot network be installed. The pilot was to be designed for the academic community, linking university research facilities together in what was the beginning of the Joint Academic NETwork (JANET).
Unbelievably, when the Civil Service finally agreed to fund the project it was on condition that no commercial company could benefit from it, proving yet again in the minds of the struggling Real Time entrepreneurs that the government was the enemy. As Ross put it:
“The US and French governments gave their computer industries defence and research contracts. Ours gave us trouble.”
It would be the mid-1980’s before UK plc became a full playing member of the Internet-enabled world that, ironically, had been made possible through British-designed technology.