The Power of Influence
Although they chafed at the ponderous movement of the government machine, the Real Timers enjoyed significant influence in the corridors of power. Many of the members who led the Club, having been officers in the Armed forces’ National Service, were comfortable debating with government officials as equals. Basil Cousins was in the Russian section of the Royal Navy; Bill Freyenfeld was a Captain in the Education Corps; Iann Barron, at 23 years of age, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Signals; and Bryan Mills, Brian Oakley and Charles Ross were Subalterns in the Intelligence Corps, Royal Signals and Royal Artillery respectively.
Entrepreneurs and academics of today may look back with envy at the very different way in which politicians interacted with interest groups during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Ross remembers the buzz of working within IPC, owners of the Daily Mirror newspaper group, whose support had helped win the election for the Labour party. As a result of the publisher’s political loyalties, senior members of staff had access to the ear of anyone they wanted within government. This connection may well have persuaded certain politicians to accept invitations to attend meetings and demonstrations, although it was by no means the only source of political influence within the Club.
A not uncommon practice of the day was for politicians to lend their influence for the benefit of commercial organisations, earning a small stipend for themselves in the process, by taking Directorships. In the early 1970’s Eric Lubbock, MP was on the IPC payroll and Kenneth Baker, MP was on the Board of Philip Hughes’ Logica. The occasional judicious question, composed, no doubt, during a rowdy debate at the Real Time Club, would be raised in the House during those years, helping to influence government thinking on an industry it clearly did not understand.
For example, when the Metropolitan Police set up its first computer system in the early 1970’s it chose a (American) Burroughs computer off the drawing board rather than a working (British) ICL machine. This was in accordance with government policy of the day, which favoured inward investment of hardware manufacturing from abroad over the development of a British computing industry. There had also been no provision in the Met’s project budget for software, showing how little Whitehall understood about computers and their operation.
The lack of government support for the development of domestic capabilities, in sharp contrast to policies of other European and the American governments, incensed the Real Timers. At their instigation, Eric Lubbock formulated a very pointed question to be put to the House, but, ever the experienced politician, took care to notify the Minister of Technology, Tony Benn, of its wording in advance. Imagine the Club’s delight when Lubbock took the floor to ask what the government was doing to support the British computing industry, and Benn responded instantly that his department had just set up a Central Computer Agency (CCA)!
RTC member Reay Atkinson, the career Department of Trade and Industry man who was eventually appointed to head up the CCA, remembers well the environment within which the Club emerged as a group of people worth listening to.
“At the end of the 1960’s we had a government that was essentially hardware oriented. The emerging software industry felt it was being excluded from both government thinking and government purchasing, at the expense of not just the individual players in the industry but the future of the UK economy as a whole. That is why we had such an influential group of people, who were commercial competitors outside the Club, coming together to help persuade government to adopt more forward thinking policies.”
And the government did begin to listen. The Real Time Club was frequently invited to give evidence to Select Committees on Science and Technology as they began to take a wider interest in computing. These were important briefings because, although no decisions were taken at Select Committee level, they were used by politicians of all parties as a venue to become familiar with current issues.
The Real Time Club was also consulted on Post Office proposals for increased telecommunications charges, and the development of a European Computer Communications Network (COST).
Brian Oakley, head of the Science and Engineering Research Council and later director of the Alvey Programme, also recalls the influence of the Club:
“There is no doubt that the idea of real time computing became embedded in ministerial minds during the seventies and I’m quite certain the Real Time Club had a very significant influence over their thinking … but I’m equally certain that not a single minister would ever admit to it!”
A Coveted Invitation
The original band of twelve diners rapidly grew to a core group of 36 by the end of 1970. Membership was by invitation only, with the requirement that candidates had to be “ambitious and enthusiastic for IT, and prepared to give some time and effort to push IT forward in the interests of the whole Community”.
The result was an eclectic mix of highly motivated individuals, all very much aware that they were working at the forefront of a revolution in society. The original entrepreneurs were soon joined by Iann Barron, designer of the NE803 and later the Modular One, precursor to the personal computer; J Harwell, who designed the first programming language (‘H’) in 1959; Roger Needham, who wrote one of the first operating systems in 1965; Roy Goodman, founder of the Infotech Ltd training and conference company, plus several entrepreneurs who had started consulting houses.
There were academics but they, too, did not fit the traditional mould. Stan Gill, Director of the Centre for Computing and Automation at Cambridge University, was described by one member as “the only academic entrepreneur I have ever known”. Other pioneering computer academics on the RTC membership roles in those early years included Roger Needham (Cambridge) and Bob Parslow (Brunel University).
In addition, there were several senior IT directors from Blue Chip organisations who needed to be plugged in to developments in telecommunications in order to ensure they remained at the competitive edge in their own markets. People such as Colin Alexander (Burmah-Castrol), D.F. Belsey (George Wimpey & Co Ltd), Jim Foord (Rolls Royce Ltd), E.F. Mellen (The Plessey Co Ltd), A.F. Teal (Shell-Mex & BP Ltd), John Wootton (Freeman, Fox and Partners), Colin Southgate (Software Sciences Ltd and later Director of the Bank of England) and S. Randall (Inter-Bank Research Organisation) were regular attendees at Club dinners.
The inclusion of a select group of leading industry journalists helped to establish the Club as a serious voice of the industry in the British press. Rex Malik, an independent investigative journalist, was instrumental in helping Alan Marshal establish the club and remained a central figure in its operations for many years. In 1968 he introduced Nancy Foy, the editor of Time-Sharing News who had recently arrived from California, and a third member of the press, Computer Weekly’s Chris Hipwell, was invited to join in 1970. For decades these three used the Club as their informal information network, quietly supporting it through their writing, yet never breaking the sanctity of the Chatham House rules under which all meetings were conducted.
Most people attended their first Club dinner either as the speaker for the evening, or as the invited guest of another member. Applications did not exist – you knew you had a shot at becoming a member yourself if someone bothered to tell you the date and location of the next meeting. From April 1969 until he eventually resigned in 1994, this job was done with quiet efficiency by Mike Plumbe, himself invited by Alan Marshall in late 1968.
As early as 1970, demand for membership triggered an identity crisis among the original founders. Concerned that by taking all comers they risked turning their rather exclusive dining club into ‘just another society’, they decided to limit membership to 40, with new members accepted only to fill vacancies. By 1974, however, the list of active members had already grown to 50, and enquiries for membership were pouring in.
Formal Weekends Away
By 1972 Government had started taking notice of the issues raised by the Real Timers. Over the next few years, several Ministers were to find that time spent enjoying Club hospitality and debates could be informative as well as entertaining. The Post Office was beginning work on the pilot network design put forward by the Club, while changes in the economic and political landscape drew most members’ attention back into the challenges within their own businesses.
But although the intense lobbying of the late 1960’s had subsided, members carried on dining and discussing the development of their industry. Rex Malik put forward a proposal to orchestrate the establishment of a business computing research and teaching organisation allied to a prominent UK university, but although the Club backed the idea, it became a concept rather than a cause.
It was Reay Atkinson, recently appointed Director of the government’s Central Computer Agency, who suggested in early 1975 that the Real Time Club had a more important role to play in the future development of the computerised world.
In a letter to Mike Plumbe, Atkinson expressed the view that the “utterly remarkable group of people” assembled in the Real Time Club “could do an immensely important and creative job within its own membership on first charting the probable course of future developments and then in bringing pressure to bear at least in an attempt to see that progress was made”. His suggestion quickly led to the idea of ‘study weekends’.
In November 1975 twenty-one RTC’ers, fully half the membership at the time, attended what became the first of three such conferences to be held in the Brighton area. The object of the first meeting was “to discuss the development of computer technology (1975 – 1985) and its effect on the market in limited areas”. The group hoped to launch the results of their deliberations at a meeting to be hosted by Ken Warren, MP at the House of Commons the following March.
With the benefit of hindsight, their discussions were prophetic. The expectation of dramatic falls in the price of both hardware and software over the ensuing ten years set the scene. Delegates called for standardisation, particularly in software, to enable more rapid market penetration and lower prices, and they advised that the major limitation on the use of large electronic storage was the cost of data input and output, not hardware.
Interestingly, this largely entrepreneurial group of industrial renegades concluded that the industry was, and would continue to be, driven by marketing, not technology as most observers believed. They also suggested that the vast majority of the systems work of the day was (already) routine and uninteresting.
Twenty-four members attended the second study weekend in 1976 to debate the Club’s old bugbear, ‘Communications’, and the GPO. Discussions focused on the dominance of IBM, which was steadily encroaching on international markets, and the combined frustrations of high cost and service delays that were forced on the market by the monopolistic position of the Post Office.
By this time teletext (Viewdata) technology had been introduced, raising the prospect of delivering information into people’s homes, so the discussions moved on to consider what home users would do with the ability to store and send data electronically. The meeting concluded that both the GPO and the government were erring on the side of hardware-centric thinking; many members felt that the Real Time Club should try to influence attitudes towards system rather than hardware thinking.
The third gathering in 1977 turned its attention to the impact of changing technology on people and society. A trade union representative was invited to give the view from the shop floor, as the Real Timers debated the impact of increased digitisation on employment, education and home life in the 1980’s. Already, voices like Iann Barron were suggesting that the technology itself was largely irrelevant and the main issues were around applicability and use. Serious consideration was given to the suggestion that the industry should call a halt on further development to enable society to integrate and adjust to the changes already introduced by computers.
Towards the end of 1977 Ken Warren, MP had introduced Sir Keith Joseph, MP, the new Minister for Technology, to the Real Time Club. Joseph’s interest in learning about the industry led to the organisation of an extraordinary meeting in March 1978, the purpose of which was to give him a general briefing on a wide range of issues. Each Club member was invited to submit a written brief, and to take the floor for not longer than one minute – a serious handicap for the more verbose among them!
Members outlined their views on the short and long term development prospects for the industry, what the RTC believed the government’s attitude and policies on computing should be, and the future role of the still problematic Post Office.
Hopes ran high that the Club could exert greater influence on government policy when Joseph suggested a further meeting with representatives of the RTC to discuss the latter issue in more depth. Sadly, delegates to that meeting later reported that the Minister’s un-stated agenda had been to gain support for his own view that de-monopolisation was the answer, a position which the Club could not fully support.
Sir Keith did go on to commission an internal look at government policy towards information and communication technologies, Out of this study emerged the All Party IT Committee and the Parliamentary Computer Forum which eventually merged to form the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (PITCOM) in 1981. The purpose of the Committee was to ensure that Parliament was well informed about information technologies and to spearhead the use of those technologies to run Parliamentary business. Needless to say, there has been considerable dialogue between PITCOM and industry over the ensuing years, with the Real Time Club taking an active role.
The Club’s final study weekend was held in March 1979 at the Ashridge Management Centre. Under the theme of ‘Information Transfer’, demonstrations were given of the latest teletext technology from the likes of Viewdata, Ceefax, Infoline and PLATO. Delegates, many of whom had fought a decade earlier for the establishment of a universal data network based on packet switching, dismissed these technologies as unsophisticated. Their frustration when the Post Office launched its own expensive version of teletext (Prestel) the following year was understandably immense.
The heated discussions at Club dinners over the Government’s handling of research into artificial intelligence, from the 1970’s through to the Alvey programme in the early 1980’s, provide a useful illustration of the nature of Real Time Club style debate. In 1973 Cambridge University Professor Sir James Lighthill wrote his Artificial Intelligence: A General Survey for the British Science Research Council. In it he divided the subject into three distinct areas of endeavour: work to emulate the way the brain thinks, robotics, and research into how brain circuitry can be translated into electronic circuitry.
Real Timers were enamoured with the idea that computers could be taught to think – here was a way to shake up society and demonstrate the power of their machines! They believed all three of the identified aspects of artificial intelligence were interlinked, so Lighthill’s suggestion that future research should tackle each area separately produced howls of protest. Members were even more incensed when it appeared that the net effect of the report was to remove government backing for research into the areas of robotics and artificial language, which RTC’ers believed to be essential.
Suspecting another ploy by the Civil Service to protect its own and reject anything that sounded like technology, the Club invited Alex d’Agapayeff of CAP to give a talk on the AI programme. Brian Oakley recalls that debate as:
“one of the best evenings of my life. d’Agapeyeff came to speak on artificial intelligence and, typically, the crowd started interrupting and heckling him. He tore up his notes, took the members full on, and eventually had them eating out of his hand!”
The debates continued for the rest of the decade. Then, in 1982 the Japanese government launched its Fifth Generation Computer Systems project, which aimed to build a supercomputer with usable artificial intelligence capabilities. The move, by the world’s acknowledged leader in the consumer electronics and automotive fields, so alarmed the US and Europe that they quickly set up projects of their own (the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation and the European Strategic Program of Research in Information Technology (ESPRIT), respectively).
The British government response was to set up the Alvey Programme, through which it proposed to channel investment in precompetitive research in order to gear up the British information technology industry. There were five strands of technology in the programme, including artificial intelligence. Brian Oakley, the appointed head of the programme, recalls the Club being largely supportive of everything except that one contentious area.
Philip Virgo has a different recollection. “As Basil Ferranti pointed out in one Club meeting, the whole programme was misconceived,” he claims.
“Alvey was pure research, and everyone knew that research was only one percent of the total cost of bringing new ideas to market. Besides, the Japanese strategy in these things had always been to get other people to crack the problems they hadn’t worked out so they could then exploit the technology. My suggestion, which annoyed Brian (Oakley) very much, was that we should take our research scientists out and shoot them before they had the chance to produce yet more bright ideas for the Japanese to borrow, thereby destroying what was left of the British economy!
“Now, looking back, what did the Alvey Programme achieve? The answer is, that annoying predictor software you find in Microsoft Office, which was actually written by Logica using Alvey research and algorithms. And since Microsoft, not Logica, made the money out of it, the Real Timers’ arguments turned out to be right.”
The 1970’s in Retrospect
That the Club and the businesses of many of its members had survived the turbulent 1970’s is a tribute to their hard work and tenacity. The decade had seen post-war Britain nearly brought to its knees. Described as the ‘sick man of Europe’, the country wrestled with the dual economic diseases of rising inflation and continuing labour unrest.
Rather than invest in new infrastructure and innovation, successive governments seemed determined to prop up the dying foundations of Britain’s earlier industrial era in an uninspired policy of ‘managing decline’. Shipbuilding, railroads, and the steel and textiles industries gobbled up vast sums of Treasury money, as did behemoth organisations such as British Leyland, BSA and ICL, before all eventually disappeared from the economic landscape.
For Real Timers, the change of government in 1970 to Ted Heath’s Conservatives seemed a perfect opportunity to put forward policy recommendations to support the growth of the struggling UK computer industry. These included the provision of investment grants rather than loans, the abolition of Import Duties that were adversely affecting the cost of parts and equipment, a reorganisation of the Government’s R&D support, a publicly owned communications network, and measures to set up international communications standards to allow free flow of data and services across national boundaries.
However, instead of supporting the industry, one of Heath’s first actions on coming to office was to cancel the Industrial Re-organisation Corporation, contributing to the demise of a number of promising start-ups in IT.
In 1973 Heath decided to take a stand against yet another national strike, this time in the coal industry. Unfortunately, the walk out coincided with OPEC price rises and production cuts that triggered fuel shortages and inflation, which topped 26% in 1975, and eventually brought down the government.
Many businesses feared they would not survive the decade, which saw both the three-day workweek and the Winter of Discontent. With venture capital for technology projects virtually non-existent and the country’s own national computer company, ICL, on the terminal list, Real Timers worried about the menace of IBM, whose seemingly unstoppable course to global domination of the industry was ironically being aided by the British government’s continued policy of purchasing the American company’s systems for its own needs.
By 1980 the Club’s appetite for further study weekends had waned, and in 1981 Mike Plumbe raised the question of its future direction. The industry was changing rapidly, with the fore-runners of the ubiquitous personal computer being introduced and economic activity in many developed countries shifting from manufacturing to service-based industries where information technologies had not yet found their niche. It was time for a re-think.