First Computers Testimonies

Not many people were familiar with data processing at the start of the 1960s. And most of those who knew the term associated it with punched card accounting machines and desktop calculators. Electronic computers – or stored program computers as they were described in those early years – were rare exotica at the top of the data processing spectrum. Those machines were designed for number crunching on a scale that was seldom required by organisations in countries as small as Ireland. And, as a general rule, computers were found in scientific, military and government settings more often than in commercial businesses.

And yet the first organisation in Ireland to grapple with this technology was a commercial enterprise – a state-owned enterprise, in fact. The Irish Sugar Company was a most unusual setting by the standards of this era. It purchased a stored program computer in 1957 to calculate the annual payments that it made to sugar beet growers. The system failed to accomplish this mission until 1960.

A tiny band of data processing practitioners introduced electronic computers to Ireland at the dawn of the 1960s. By the end of that decade a much larger community of computing specialists existed and computers were at work in manufacturing facilities, energy and transport companies, universities and the civil service. Bureau services managed the payrolls of businesses that were not yet ready to run their own computers. The first Irish software company had opened its doors. And the country could claim the fastest implementation on record of an international airline reservation system. This archive charts those achievements.

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1956-60: The system in a seed store

Eoghan Busteed was appointed in 1960 as the first full-time manager of the first computer installation in Ireland. His actual job title was ‘manager, central accounts’. Speaking about this role 46 years later he described it as ‘a great struggle’. He led a staff of more than 20 people – programmers, punch card machine operators and handlers for a variety of electro-mechanical collators, sorters, tabulators and printers. If everything ran smoothly, this team could get its ICT 1201 computer to produce 8,000 statements over a weekend. But the system was down for most of the time. In fact, the Sugar Company had been struggling to get this computer to work since 1957.

The company was headed by a former army major general and its command and control processes had a distinctly military character. General manager Michael J Costello and chief accountant JP Lawler had bought the computer for £33,000 from Calculating and Statistical Services, a Dublin-based agent for the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM). They instructed their auditors and accountants to get it ready for the 1958 ‘beet campaign’, when 28,000 farmers around the country harvested their sugar beet.

These growers were paid according to the quantity and sugar content of their crops, but money was deducted for goods and services supplied by the company. The BTM machine was supposed to juggle all the variables behind these calculations so that the payments could be made more promptly.

The first computer room in Ireland was a seed store at the beet processing complex in Thurles. The Sugar Company ran four factories. The Thurles operation employed 220 people in the ‘off season’ and around 550 during the ‘campaign’. The new computer arrived there in the middle of a rural electrification drive. A visitor to Thurles in 1958 could have observed Sugar Company accountants attempting to program the machinery in the seed store while, in another part of town, the ESB and the Irish Countrywomens Association were treating the local populace to demonstrations of an ‘all-electric farm kitchen’.

In 1959 the cosmic physicists arrived in Thurles. A group of scientists from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies wanted to process data from their experiments and the Sugar Company’s system was still the only computer in the state. The researchers achieved their aim, but concluded that some other of form of data processing would have been more suitable. Electronic computers were just too labour-intensive.

In the same year the Sugar Company moved its BTM machine into a prefabricated building in a field beside the Thurles factory. The system was now officially designated  as an ICT 1201, because BTM had evolved into International Computers and Tabulators (ICT). By now the equipment vendor had recruited Gordon Clarke as its first Ireland-based employee with computer training. It was also providing technical expertise to assist the Sugar Company to develop and implement a beet payments program.

Some accounts suggest that ICT produced a viable application during 1959, but the company never acknowledged this. In fact, according to Eoghan Busteed, its senior management was then considering whether the entire computing project should be scrapped. Because the company’s accountants were making regular use of the tabulators that supported the system, however, it made more sense to persevere with developing a payments application.

The ICT 1201 finally began to produce statements for beet growers at the end of 1960. Some of the credit went to four company employees who had recently learned to write the extremely compact programs that drove the machine. But it had taken three years of hard toil and around 100 people, including the advisers from ICT, to get Ireland’s first computer up and running.

1961-65: Fourteen potential customers

It took a lot of people to support a small number of computers. IBM set up its Irish subsidiary in 1956, logged its first computer shipment four years later and hired dozens of system engineers, technical trainers and service bureau operators in the early 1960s. ICT’s workforce grew in parallel as the company sold more systems.

Derek Overend joined IBM Ireland as its first salesperson when the Dublin office opened. Looking back in 1993, he recalled how computing projects were organised in the 1960s. He used to insist that every installation was headed by someone who knew as much about the equipment as IBM did. That meant that they understood the systems’ capabilities, were able to assess the viability of new ideas and could develop realistic upgrade plans. It also meant that the users were firmly committed to IBM’s philosophies, products and practices. Similar ties bound ICT with its customers.

Computing in Ireland had become a duopoly of these two vendors. Engineers, programmers and operators had to pledge loyalty to one side or the other and to carve out careers inside their own tribe. All software development had to follow the procedures laid down by either IBM or ICT. Even the punched cards that held data for processing came in different formats for the two camps.

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) bought an IBM Model 650 ‘magnetic drum data-processing machine’ – the only Model 650 ever sold in Ireland – in 1959, making it the country’s first IBM computer user. Five years later the ESB installed two IBM 1401s for accounts management and claimed to have the largest computing operation in Ireland. IBM also became the dominant computer supplier in higher education. Both of the Dublin universities installed IBM 1620s in 1962, while University College Cork acquired a 1620 two years later.

ICT, meanwhile, landed the first computer deal with the Irish government in 1963, when the Revenue Commissioners ordered an ICT 1301. Another system from the same family replaced the 1201 in the Sugar Company. Unlike the older machine, the new computer could access data on tapes. This was regarded as a major advance in information storage, but ICT had not made allowance for the idiosyncrasies of the electricity supply in Thurles. Something made the computer tapes stretch and malfunction in a way that the computer firm had never encountered before. Engineers eventually discovered cattle in a nearby field rubbing themselves against the poles that held up the electricity cable. Those vibrations were causing irregularities in the current.

Happily for all, no cattle scratching issues arose when ICT shipped systems from the 1300 series into Esso in 1963 and Clondalkin Paper Mills in 1964. These deliveries were followed by ICT 1300 installations at PJ Carroll, Jacobs Biscuits and Sunbeam Wolsey.

Manufacturing and distribution firms also featured among the first wave of IBM computer users. Cadbury Ireland, Gateaux, Goulding Fertilisers and Irish Cement were early customers.

User organisations were expected to write their own software, so it was normal for them to hire staff who had been employed by the computer vendors and trained to do things in the approved IBM or ICT fashion. Most technical staff looked for positions in customer installations or management consultancies after a few years working for one of the vendors. In the early 1960s, indeed, IBM had not yet drawn up internal promotion paths for its computer support people. Their profession was still young and unstructured.

IBM launched the System/360 family in April 1964. Its underlying concept appeared revolutionary. The five models in the new range had different operating systems, but used a common instruction set and the same input-output interface for their tape and disk devices. For the first time programmers were able to transfer the code written for one of the System/360 models onto another. IBM guaranteed upward, though not downward, compatibility.

In Ireland IBM foresaw an unprecedented demand for its computers and ran a massive education programme for its staff. It urged the country’s larger organisations, especially those that were still dependent on tabulators and ledger machines, to enter the computer age by leasing System/360s. This campaign was largely a matter of finding and befriending individuals who showed an interest in the new data processing technologies and were senior enough to influence investment decisions in their workplaces.

The vendor thus drew up a target list for its new technology. It identified just fourteen potential customers.

Some, such as the ESB and the universities, were already running its computers. The Irish government and public sector offered fresh opportunities. Apart from Revenue, which was already in the ICT camp, the civil service was an uncharted territory. State-owned transport companies Aer Lingus and CIE, the public transport authority, were also on IBM’s hitlist, as was Irish Life Assurance, where the government held more than 90 per cent of the shares. The first System/360 in Ireland was shipped to CIE in 1967.

Before the end of 1964 ICT had introduced the 1900 series – its response to the System/360. The old rivalry was now sustained by a new generation of computer technology.

1966-69: Computing services and career paths

Cracks in the IBM-ICT duopoly began to appear as the decade advanced. Honeywell arrived in Ireland when the Revenue Commissioners replaced its ICT 1301 with a Honeywell 1200 in 1967. A communications station near Shannon Airport installed two Digital Equipment minicomputers in 1968 for relaying teletype messages to and from aircraft on the North Atlantic. Programmable calculators – the personal computers of their era – started to sell to engineers and then to business administrators.

The formation of the Irish Computer Society in 1967 was another sign of change. It bridged the tribal division by facilitating dialogue between IBM and ICT loyalists. Computing professionals had now begun to see themselves as a distinct community. And their numbers were rising steadily as more installations were commissioned.

Organisations that were introducing their first systems usually hired managers who had already acquired computing experience, whether in Ireland or in other countries. They also selected and trained existing clerical staff to become programmers and operators. The vendors supplied aptitude tests to help customers identify candidates for the new data processing departments. This practice helped to gain trade union acceptance for projects that would reduce the employment of office workers. Some of the resulting agreements, however, imposed constraints on the size of a company’s computer or on the scale of its applications.

Computing projects were also becoming more diverse. Most systems were still found in accounting departments, but organisations like the ESB and De Beers Industrial Diamonds implemented technical applications.

Bureau services enabled an increasing number of organisations to avail of data processing – and payroll processing in particular – without committing themselves to major investments. Most of these services originated inside user installations and sought a local clientele. First they got their internal operations running smoothly. Then they added a bureau as a revenue-generating sideline. The most notable exception to this pattern was a Dallas-based service provider, University Computing Company, which expanded its operations into Shannon and Dublin in 1968.

The computer vendors made some modest progress in the public service. The Department of Finance started to train civil servants as systems analysts and programmers in 1967, so that they could develop applications for other departments. Some of these projects used the Revenue computer. IBM sold the smallest models in its System/360 range to the Department of Defence and the Land Commission. Then it targeted the largest government department, Posts and Telegraphs, which ran the telephone service and a savings bank. Its workforce of around 30,000 made up half of the civil service, but the department did not introduce its first computer until 1973.

Financial institutions were also slow to introduce computers. Irish Life and New Ireland Assurance became the first insurance firms to install systems in the late 1960s. The major banks, however, took longer to adopt the technology. This was partly because they were preoccupied with the restructuring and consolidation process that created Bank of Ireland Group and Allied Irish Banks (AIB). But it was also due to their decentralised structures. Individual bank branches ran their own electro-mechanical accounting machines, usually supplied by Burroughs or NCR, that enabled officials to view each customer’s profile on a single card. These systems were labour-intensive and unconnected, but those limitations suited the interests of most branch managers and staff.

It was not until the 1970s, when the number of cheques that needed processing reached unprecedented levels, that the banking groups accepted computerisation and set up central data processing facilities.

By the end of the 1960s around 50 organisations in Ireland had followed the Sugar Company’s lead and installed electronic computers. The distinction between stored program computers and other data processing equipment was now harder to discern. Desktop calculators could be programmed and the accounting machines were beginning to incorporate electronics.

Independent programming and support services for IBM installations were also appearing for the first time. The computer maker had previously made it uneconomic for customers to choose alternative service providers, but the market opened up after an antitrust suit in the US. A group of former IBM staff opened System Dynamics in 1968, effectively creating the first software firm in Ireland.

The computing workforce was relatively young and unusually mobile. Hardware and software specialists took full advantage of the growing number and variety of job opportunities.

1969: The Astral travellers

The largest and most sophisticated Irish computing project of the decade was at Aer Lingus.

The airline had begun evaluating electronic computers in the 1950s and partnered with IBM in 1961 to develop a communications based real-time system. Their objective was a smaller version of the IBM Sabre reservations system in American Airlines, running on an IBM 7010 – a large-scale version of the IBM 1410 with disk storage. But the Sabre project ran into difficulties in 1964, exposing the limitations of the hardware platform. In the same year IBM announced the System/360. Aer Lingus cancelled its order for an IBM 7010 and decided that it would implement the new generation of computers instead.

Because the System/360 could not initially meet its needs, Aer Lingus adopted an interim strategy. In 1964 the company imported a second-hand airline inventory system from the US – a Bunker-Ramo Teleregister based on vacuum tube processors and magnetic drum storage. Coloured lights showed the availability of seats on a particular flight and date to the staff in a central reservations group. Because this equipment could not hold any text records, Lingus installed an IBM 1440 to store passenger information, followed by a second 1440 for accounting and for tracking the ages of replaceable aircraft parts.

It took five years for Aer Lingus to introduce a reservations system that ran on the System/360 – one designed and developed in collaboration with IBM and other airlines from its customer base. By Irish standards, this was a computing project of unprecedented ambition and complexity. The investment was also on an unprecedented scale. Aer Lingus paid IBM around £4 million for equipment and services.

The end result was the Advanced System of Telecommunications and Reservations for Aer Lingus (Astral). The software ran on two IBM System/360 model 50s, one of which was constantly on standby to take over operations from the other. These processors were the most powerful that IBM had ever sold in Ireland, but the supplier warned the airline that model 50s might not be large enough to support an online reservations system. No one really knew if it would work.

The mainframes were connected to more than 200 user terminals with display screens and keyboards in 18 cities around Europe and North America. A single terminal cost more than the operator’s annual salary. Every location required a hardwired computer to drive the local screens and every configuration was different. The Aer Lingus network also needed special modems so that it could handle communications protocols from the US over European lines.

The reservations management software had also originated on the other side of the Atlantic. IBM created its Programmed Airline Reservations System (PARS) by adapting American Airlines’ Sabre system to run on the larger members of its System/360 family. The corporation planned to install PARS in airlines throughout the world, but soon discovered that it would need fundamental alterations to work outside the US. It set up a special software development group at Heathrow Airport, announced an ‘international’ edition called IPARS and persuaded five European airlines to adopt it. BOAC was the first to implement this software. Aer Lingus was the second.

Astral was phased into service over the winter of 1968/69. The Irish airline, moreover, achieved the fastest roll-out of an IPARS system.

The Aer Lingus project encapsulated key trends in the evolution of computer applications. It was based on real-time data management, not batch processing. It involved computer networking across multiple locations in different countries. It proved that software could be supplied as a product and rolled out in multiple organisations. It utilised visual display terminals that were operated by customer service staff, not by computing specialists. Its support procedures and back-up measures were more complex and advanced than those in other installations. And it started a process that led Aer Lingus to develop add-on software for other airlines and to sell computing services to other industries.

These advances, along with the arrival of minicomputers that more organisations could afford, foreshadowed the computing agenda of the 1970s.

Last edit: March 2019

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The future of computing as forecast in 1966 (Source: Management magazine)

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