The early 1990’s saw the arrival from America of the Internet, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the national communications network that the Real Time Club had been urging its own government to support nearly twenty five years earlier. However, the revolutionary fire seemed to be going out of the Club, and in 1994 it nearly folded.
Off to a Good Start
Before that happened, however, the new decade began with yet more high level consultation between policy makers and the Real Time Club. In March 1990, a small working party was set up to dine with Michael Colvin, MP and discuss his draft Computer Misuse Bill. The Club had already put forward its views on computer security at a December 1989 meeting with the Select Committee, so the delegation was able to report back to the Club that “most of what we said had already been considered by Michael and his advisers; but we were able to make one or two points which resulted in minor changes during the subsequent Committee stage.”
It was around this time that the unofficial RTC ‘Council’ had begun issuing annual newsletters to keep members in touch with all Club business, including membership and attendance numbers. For the year 1990/91, attendance across the Club’s meetings programme reached an all-time high of 406. The highest attendance that year was at a regular meeting in January 1991, when 105 members heard James Martin, founder and Chairman of James Martin Associates, talk about ‘Future Trends in Computing’. This extraordinary attendance figure was second only to the 117 achieved at the Club’s 20th Anniversary dinner (1987), which was later surpassed by an attendance of 158 at the 25th Anniversary dinner in 1992.
The Quarter-Centenary Dinner was a gala affair, the planning of which had taken nearly eighteen months. All the (still living) founder members were traced, and ten attended. Written recollections of the early days were sent in by Alan Marshall from his base in Australia and Rex Malik, who, sadly, passed away before the dinner actually took place. Mike Plumbe chaired the evening, with contributions from Bill Freyenfeld; Sir Brian Jenkins, the Lord Mayor of London; Jacques Stern, Chief Executive of the Advanced Computer Research Institute in Paris; and Ken Warren, Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry.
Several notable speakers from earlier years were present and honoured, including Alan Benjamin OBE, Sir Bryan Carsberg, Sir John Fairclough, Sir John Hoskyns, Jean Irvine, Sir Michael Marshall, MP, and Professor Ewan Page. Ever one to campaign for improvements, Bill Freyenfeld made the point in his toast to the guests, that in its first 25 years, the Club had been addressed by only five lady speakers – Nancy Foy, Grace Hopper, Steve Shirley, Jean Irvine and Barbara Stephens – reflecting, perhaps, the worrying failure of the industry to attract more women into its employment.
Tucked away in the first Club Newsletter had also been a call for volunteers to replace the long-standing and hardworking troika of self-appointed Club Officers. The three, Freyenfeld as meeting Convener, Plumbe as Secretary, and Ashton as Treasurer, had agreed to continue in their roles until after the Silver Jubilee celebrations in May 1992, leaving eighteen months for replacements to be found and brought up to speed. Jennifer Benyon-Tinker stepped forward for the role of Treasurer, allowing Stewart Ashton to be dined out in April 1992 after fifteen years of service. Another member, Gerald Janes, volunteered for the office of Secretary, releasing Mike Plumbe from nearly 25 years in that post.
That left Bill Freyenfeld unreplaced (unreplaceable?) and he bravely soldiered on, convening meetings for another year. Two members expressed interest in taking on the role of Convener, but when they had a look Bill’s exhaustive ‘job description’ they quietly melted back into the lower ranks!
In 1993 Bryan Mills agreed to step in, as Chairman rather than Convener, and Bill was finally able to make his exit, having characteristically made sure that the speakers programme for the following year was in place. By his own reckoning, he had invited over 120 speakers during his twelve years as Convener, and approximately fifty percent of those were the result of cold contacts. The Club aimed high, and few invitees turned down the opportunity to speak to such a well-respected group – the most notable exceptions being Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and HRH the Duke of Kent.
While regular Club business carried on under its new management, Freyenfeld and Plumbe collaborated once again, this time to organise a special dinner in May 1994 to celebrate old friend Ken Warren’s newly awarded knighthood. The evening was not an official Club event and the guests, most of whom were over sixty years of age, had long since ceased to be regular attendees at Club meetings. As it happened, however, this reunion of original Real Timers (earlier described as a bunch of clapped-out punch card hacks) proved so popular that further dinners were planned under the typically quirky name of the ‘Off-Line Club’.
But the Real Time Club itself was beginning to lose its way. Average attendance at meetings had declined from 38 in 1990/91, to 32 in 1991/92, 29 in 1992/93 and 26 in 1993/94. The rising costs of dining meant that with attendance below 30 paying members, the Club was making a loss on each event. Furthermore, an exercise to re-register all the names on the membership list, thought to be a requirement under the Data Protection Act, had reduced the official membership numbers from over 300 to under 70, forcing the officers to call for a review.
Gerald Janes’ note asking for input on the future of the Club brought a flurry of response, and prompted the scheduling of an extraordinary general meeting in December 1994 to discuss the way forward. Saddened at the prospect of losing such a unique association in the IT industry, several people (including both Bill Freyenfeld and Mike Plumbe, who came out of retirement for the purpose), began to rally support from both past and current members. In the process of canvassing Real Timers, they developed a consensus of views that were reiterated at the EGM:
– The club should not be allowed to fold.
– The prime purpose of the Club was as a network, although it was recognised that with the emergence of industry organisations such as the British Computer Society, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Computer Systems and Services Association, there was growing competition in this regard. One member summed it up as follows: “The Club is not unique in providing such a network, but we do it rather better than most.”
– The Club should utilise and extend its reputation and contacts with policy makers in government.
There was also widespread recognition that in order to survive, the Club would have to review and revise its finances, meeting arrangements, membership admission, internal communications and organisational structure – in short, a complete re-think of the purpose and administration of the Real Time Club was needed to make it more manageable and contemporary.
Twenty-three members turned up for the EGM at the National Liberal Club to vote on a series of resolutions that had been prepared by the backroom activists and proposed on the night by Basil Cousins. The first resolution determined that every effort should be made to keep the Club in operation. The second and third provided for modus operandi to achieve the reorganisation and maintain a low level of income producing activity until the reconstruction was completely implemented.
The result was the appointment of a Working Party, chaired by Basil Cousins, to consider all aspects of the future of the Club and report back with recommendations within three months. The WP consulted the views of over 180 members in preparing its report, which was accepted at a second EGM at the end of March. The re-named Interim Committee was then tasked with implementing the proposals, all of which were adopted at the third EGM in June 1995.
And thus it was that after twenty-seven years of combined anarchy and benevolent despotism, the Real Time Club finally submitted to the dreaded disciplines of an elected Council, a Constitution and a set of General Rules.
The new structure and rules formalised the Club’s traditional schedule of nine dinner meetings per year, and provided for a greater number of active officers to undertake the tasks of organising the programme and managing the membership. Minutes of the first Council meeting acknowledged no fewer than 13 elected and appointed officers. These included the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Immediate Past Chairman, the Treasurer and both a Membership and an Events Secretary. In addition, there were four designated Whips, whose job it was to encourage members to attend events, plus three Caucus Convenors.
One innovation that was instituted in the Club’s new General Rules was its Overseas Membership and Links initiative. It was felt that this international flavour would attract more high profile speakers and further emphasise the uniqueness of the Club. However, the effort to identify and maintain overseas members became too great, and only a handful were ever recruited.
The idea of the Caucuses was to lead the Club’s activities and contributions on specific and sometimes radical issues of import to the contemporary development and societal impact of information technology. They were:
– the Education Caucus, led by Alan Mitson, which carried on the work of the earlier IT in Ed Committee and, specifically, took on the RTC’s turn in the Chair of JAPONITE.
– the Legal Caucus, convened by Gillian Bull, aimed to facilitate a flow of information between members and the government on the impact of law on the ICT industry.
– the SuperHighway Caucus, under Des Lee’s guidance, was concerned that the UK lagged well behind the US in exploiting opportunities for linking and sharing resources on the information superhighway.
In convening its Caucuses, the Club recognised the danger of the ‘jumping on the bandwagon effect’, but felt that the uniquely eclectic mix of skills and backgrounds within its membership meant that the RTC could facilitate open discussion between groups that would otherwise ‘engage in megaphone diplomacy’.
The work of the Caucuses enjoyed with varying degrees of success. The Education Caucus picked up from the IT in Education Committee, which had been disbanded in 1993. Through the efforts of the new Caucus and its active involvement in JAPONITE, the Real Time Club continued to make a significant contribution to advancing the use and teaching of information technologies in schools, as discussed in the next chapter.
The Legal Caucus did not meet with as much success, however. Failing to find a cause to rally ‘round, the seven members attending its first meeting agreed to an agenda of ‘head-banging, kite flying and generally letting off steam under the Chatham House Rules’. As this was roughly the same diet offered at the main Club meetings, it is probably not surprising that attendance at Legal Caucus meetings declined swiftly, and it was never resurrected.
After a quiet start, the SuperHighway Caucus announced an ambitious project in 1996. Following on from the IT in Education team’s success with its major report on Information Technology in Schools, the idea was to produce another key report on ‘ICT and its impact on the City over the next 30 years’.
A call went out in the 1997 Newsletter (which turned out to be the final one issued) for contributions on a range of topics, including:
– A short history of the future (and of futurology)
– The City and the State
– Buildings and Living
– Laws and Crime
Although several members stepped forward to write different sections of the report, the task proved too complicated to coordinate and the project was allowed to die.
Finally, a fourth group, the Finance Caucus, was launched in 1997, with Charles Ross as Convenor. Its aim was to look specifically at the problems of funding start-ups and early stage firms in ICT. With the full backing of the entire Club, the Finance Caucus took its concerns and recommendations to the widest possible public forum, and was able to influence the direction of government debate and subsequent legislation in this area. The work of the Finance Caucus is discussed in more detail in Chapter Seven.