It was certainly never Alan Marshall’s intention to establish a dining club – indeed, according to the man himself, “as an American, I found the concept of a ‘men’s club’ was quite foreign to me”. The tradition was well established in Britain, however, with some notable nineteenth century clubs, such as the Royal Society and the Lunar Society, demonstrating the contributions such congenial associations could make to the world around them.
So when the Real Timers’ initial meetings grew into a series of planned slots in the calendar, and various members of what had become an exclusive group began to lobby as a unified force, the thorny issue of modus operandi was raised. As early as 1970 a law firm was commissioned to draft a constitution, but when the output ran to 17 pages of legalese, the rebels rebelled. Drawn together by their common interest in breaking the rules that bound British society to an earlier age, they decided to take an ironic lead from the contemporary machinations of the Conservative party leadership elections and operate with no apparent regulations at all!
Thereafter, and for the next 28 years, members agreed to abide by only two rules. The first was that no speaker was to be interrupted for at least five minutes. The second was the Chatham House rule, which states that “participants in the meeting are free to use any information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”. This rule is still invoked at each meeting and to the best of anyone’s recollection, has never been breached.
But even anarchists need some organising force to ensure they come together at the same place and the right time, are wined and dined to their satisfaction, and challenged by bold speakers to think the unthinkable. Although all members were encouraged to suggest speakers and manage an evening session, a nominal Chairman and Secretary quickly emerged, holding the administrative reins for the group.
By virtue of the fact that he had called the first few meetings together Alan Marshal had fallen into the role of Founder, and as a matter of expediency he was the accepted Chairman until he moved to Australia in 1970. Stanley Gill stepped in to the role for the next five years, and was followed by Reay Atkinson and later Bryan Mills. When the role of Chairman was dropped in 1981, Bill Freyenfeld, a master of organisation and communication, styled himself the Meetings Convener and set about orchestrating the annual speakers programme for the next 13 years.
But from the beginning, it was Mike Plumbe who held the Club together. Nancy Foy, the timesharing journalist, once described Mike as the “spider at the centre of the web”. Her observation that “Mike was always quietly pouring the wine and doing bits of administration” is an understatement. From 1968 until he formally retired from active duty in 1992, Mike maintained the membership list, organised venues, liaised with speakers, sent out notices of events and made everyone feel welcome. His contribution was widely appreciated, and tangibly acknowledged when the Club foundered shortly after his retirement. His dedication to the Club led him to return from 1995 to 1996 to help it get re-established.
Throughout Mikes’ tenure as Secretary, the club was unofficially governed by a mysterious, Plumbe-selected ‘Council of Elders’ whose views on membership, speakers and events would be canvassed by phone or post. After Bill Freyenfeld began to organise the annual meeting programmes, the triumvirate of Plumbe, Freyenfeld and Stewart Ashton (treasurer) managed all Club business between them, with occasional reference to Mike’s ‘Council’ when required. This unstructured, unelected style of governance suited the Real Timers and continued most successfully for nearly thirty years.
Dining and Discussion
In 1975 the first of many briefing documents for prospective speakers was prepared, in which the Real Time Club describes itself as an “occasional dining club, at which people with an interest in computing can meet privately and informally, and discuss matters of common interest in congenial surroundings.”
The Club’s annual calendar quickly settled into a routine of nine monthly dinner meetings (leaving out July, August and December) held at various hostelries around central London. The favourites on this list included Bertorelli’s, Leoni’s Quo Vadis and the Saville Club, but occasionally, for reasons of boredom or budget, a new restaurant would be tried out. Club hospitality included a three-course meal, preceded by an open bar and accompanied by wine, although the unrestricted flow of booze occasionally led to cost overruns and the disapproval of other diners!
Following the dinner service, the evening’s invited speaker gave a twenty to thirty minute presentation, and at least forty minutes were set aside for questions and debate from the floor.
What made these evenings so popular with both members and speakers was the no-holds-barred attitude of the Club. Presenters were advised, “as regards style, the Club does not take itself too seriously, and is perhaps more noted for robust exuberance than for respectful deference to its speakers”!
Most speakers entered into the spirit of the evening and many commented on it, as these extracts from letters of thanks clearly demonstrate:
“I would like to take this opportunity to write and say how much I enjoyed myself as guest speaker at the Real Time Club recently. I found the company most pleasant, which, coupled with the good food, lively conversation and almost limitless amounts of wine that you insisted on placing in my glass (I am not complaining I hasten to add), combined to make the evening a most pleasant one.” (Gerald Janes, Senior Consultant, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell)
“I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the warm welcome I was given by you and the Club. It was especially stimulating to have a well-informed audience that was quick to question and ready to debate a variety of views.” (Stephen Finch, Senior Regulatory Affairs Advisor, British Petroleum)
“I even enjoyed the buffeting I got from a Force 10 Gale.” (Brian Jolly, MD Systec Consultants Ltd)
Occasionally, for respected or valued guests, the group could exercise a level of restraint that was sufficiently unusual to warrant a mention. Following a meeting in April 1978, Sir Keith Joseph, MP commented, “I was most impressed by the self-denying ordinance which you had imposed upon yourselves.”
For most speakers, the value of the Real Time Club lay in its unique combination of industry pioneers and renegades, exclusion of the major suppliers and complete conviction that computing can and should be used to make the world a better place. They were called on to be challenging and controversial, and they rose to the occasion. Roger Needham of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory summed it up in a letter to Mike Plumbe, dated 16th November, 1972:
“It has always seemed to me that the best kind of speech for the Real Time Club ought to be on a subject which could be described as computational politics, or perhaps political computation, and I am hoping to think of something of a suitably scandalous nature.”
(The topic he eventually chose was ‘The Politics of Research and Teaching in Computing’.)
Over the forty-five years since its inception, the Club has hosted (and roasted) in excess of 250 speakers from as far afield as Europe and the United States. In 1969 the Club was especially honoured to host Commander Grace Hopper, Head of the US Navy’s Programming Languages Section, who returned later in the year to talk to a combined RTC and British Computer Society (BCS) event.
Other notable speakers have included Paddy Ashdown MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Meinard Donker de Marillac of CAP/Sogeti SA in France, M.M. Allegre, Delegue Generale de la Delegation a l’Informatique in France, Dr Kuo from the Office of Naval Research at the University of Hawaii, Dr Sandy Fraser of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, USA, and Vitalij Lvov, Head of the Laboratory for the Application of Computing Sciences to the Automation of Scientific Research, Institute of Automation and Electrometry, Siberian Section of Academy of Sciences (who wins the prize for longest job title) from the USSR. There was even a serious possibility that Al Gore, Vice President and Presidential hopeful of the United States, would agree to speak to the Club.
The Real Time Club has been many things to many people. Perhaps its greatest strength was the eclectic and informal mix of entrepreneurs, academics, commercial competitors, politicians, civil servants and journalists who gathered for each meeting. The Club’s lack of bureaucracy and absence of major supplier representation, combined with well lubricated open discussion, meant that members felt free to pursue radical ideas with passion and a great deal of good humour.
Genius and passion often come hand in hand with eccentricity, and stories abound of amusing episodes at Real Time Club dinners. For example, Jerry Fisher, Scottish nationalist to the core and described as a maverick with a political agenda, first came to the Club as Computer Manager for the company that manufactured Walls ice creams. The guest speaker at one dinner shortly after Fisher joined was Ian Barron, the modest inventor of the Modular One minicomputer, who recalls:
“It was to be my first speech on the subject and I made it as complicated as I could just to impress everyone. When I proudly finished my talk, there was an utter silence. Nobody said anything. They all looked miserable, and then this voice piped up from the back of the room, saying, ‘Can you tell me what relevance this has to ice-cream making?’”
For several years Brian Oakley had the job of briefing government Ministers to attend or even present at a Real Time Club meeting. He remembers telling them:
“It will be an easy speech for you, but questioning and interruptions are a feature of the Club. There’s nothing you can say that they’ll accept lying down; you’ll find yourself getting into a real shouting match with some of them. It’s fun, but you must be prepared for that.”
He was often surprised at how much the Ministers actually relaxed and enjoyed their visits.
For journalist members, the RTC was a valuable web of information and contacts. Nancy Foy recalls:
“The centre of the industry was in the States and the American companies were very egocentric. For these little tiddler companies in the UK, the networking at the Real Time Club was vital. This was where you learned about the new multiplexers, modems and applications coming out – information that was crucial if it was your business and your money on the line, and a godsend to the select few journalists that were granted admission.”
Reay Atkinson, career civil servant, remembers the Club as an invaluable forum within which ideas could be developed. The achievements of the particular group of industry leaders combined with the Club’s strict adherence to Chatham House rules meant that government officials could trade ideas and really learn about the rapidly increasing significance of the software component in the industry.
Despite the high percentage of women in the IT field, there were no women in the Club until journalist Nancy Foy was introduced by Rex Malik in 1968. Then, in the early 1970’s Steve Shirley, founder of FI (Freelance International) began to attend meetings and was, in due course, invited to join. She accepted the invitation with alacrity because, in her words:
“It was a stimulating group of individuals, and it was a male network that would let me in! Other networks of chief executives of high tech companies were less welcoming of the gender challenge.”
The shortage of women in the industry has always been an issue of concern to the Club, which continues to work to promote their greater involvement.
Of course, there were other industry and networking associations attracting membership from the same group of people, but somehow the Real Time Club remained unique and popular. One early member recalls:
“We had no home, no telephone, no organisation but a lot of liveliness and influence. People wanted to be invited to a Real Time Club dinner more than they wanted to go to a BCS meeting, but you had to join the BCS because you got letters after your name. It’s very British to have letters after your name.”
The Real Time Club was a place where you could have informal contacts with virtually anyone in the industry, including your direct competitors. For some, this was the source of enmities that have lasted as long as the Club itself, but others found great truth in the old adage that you have the most in common with your adversaries. Enduring friendships developed in the regular meetings and flourished at the frequent summer and Christmas parties that were held in the homes of various members.
There were even spin-off groups. Dick Evans’ wife, seeing how often her husband stayed out late for his RTC meetings, organised partners’ dinners on the same evenings. Calling themselves the ‘Anti-Real Time Club’, the group followed the same pattern of dining at various establishments around London. Evans recalls one occasion when the Real Time and the Anti-Real Time Clubs actually dined on different floors of the same restaurant!
Then in 1992, following the Club’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, several of the founding members decided to come out of semi-retirement and form the ‘Off-Line Club’. They held a few meetings that were tinged with nostalgia, then decided they still had enough fight in them to rejoin the main Club. Many still regularly attend Club meetings, engage in active lobbying, and enliven the proceedings with their penetrating and irreverent questions.
Changing with the Times
The absence of formal rules, combined with a spirit of rebellion and an open bar often led to boisterous behaviour as an evening wore on. Only once has a speaker had occasion to complain about the verbal treatment he received at a Real Time Club meeting. In the manner of a true gentlemen’s club, the offending member was quickly taken aside and shown the error of his ways. Letters of apology flew thick and fast, the speaker’s forgiveness was secured and, indeed, he became a great friend of the Club for many years.
However, it did seem that as the focus of the club became blurred, boisterous behaviour replaced the reforming energy of the late 1960’s, and some members began to find the tone of meetings becoming a little too rowdy. Various reminiscences include the regular use of bread rolls to launch missile attacks, a ‘beer garden’ atmosphere, and even the attempted jettison of one member over the banisters outside the Saville Club! Little by little, the early and more sensitive members began to drift away and attendance figures dwindled.
By the 1980’s the Committee was obliged to launch unheard of membership recruitment drives, albeit conducted in the club’s ‘usual discreet way’, to keep the Club alive. Its reputation was still solid, however, and the letters of invitation invariably generated an enthusiastic response, such as this one from Martin Jeffreys, Partner of Wootton, Jeffreys:
“Dear Mike, At last I have arrived. Philip Hughes is in the New Year’s Honours List and I have been elected to the Real Time Club!”
Other invitees were “delighted” and “honoured”, with one happy new member referring to his invitation as “one offer I cannot refuse.” Only one person wrote to decline his invitation to join: Dr Alan Cane, Technical Page Editor of the Financial Times, refused on the grounds that he did not believe the Club should have journalists as full members, so he preferred to remain on the Standing Guest list instead (which he did for many years).
However, the recruitment drives prompted concern among remaining old-timers that the Club’s unique character was being diluted. In response, Mike Plumbe and Bill Freyenfeld prepared a profile of the Real Time Club after its first twenty years, showing how it had been obliged to change with the industry around it.
In the report, Freyenfeld and Plumbe describe the founding group as, “Computer Industry technical buffs all well-known to one-another, and constituting a cross between an Industry Pressure Group and a Mutual Admiration Society”, which, by the late 1980’s, included “half a dozen assorted millionaires, a couple of MPs, and one CB, two CBEs and two OBEs” who were still a major draw for high calibre speakers.
The Committee recognised, however, that in order to survive another twenty years, the Club needed to extend its net to include a younger age group and a much wider set of occupational backgrounds. It also identified some issues around which to rally the membership, so that through the late 1980’s and the closing decade of the Millennium the Club had its most active period of engagement in promoting wider support for the industry and the beneficial use of computing power in society.