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.

The First Computers in Ireland – People, Products and Projects

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October 1956 Feasibility studies

Some of the bigger organisations in Ireland began to evaluate electronic computing in the mid-1950s.

Among these were the Guinness brewery, which decided in October 1956 that the available technology was too expensive and unreliable, and Aer Lingus, which conducted its first feasibility study in the following year and reached the same conclusion.

November 1956 IBM Ireland opens

IBM established an Irish subsidiary at 24 Fitzwilliam Place. The company’s products included ‘electronic data processing machines’, but its main business was the promotion and sale of ‘unit record equipment’    electro-mechanical accounting machines that stored information on punched cards.

IBM Ireland’s original staff (from left to right): Raymond Girault, Margaret Fitzgerald and Derek Overend (1920-2016).

The fourth person to join IBM Ireland was John Moriarty, who became the company’s first ‘customer engineer’ in June 1957. In 1968 he took charge of the computer laboratory in Trinity College Dublin.

(Photograph courtesy of IBM Ireland)

1957 First computer in Ireland

The Irish Sugar Company took delivery of a British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM) computer and housed it in a seed store at the company’s factory in Thurles.

Originally developed by Hollerith Electronic Computers (HEC), this model was known at different times as the HEC 1201, BTM 1201 and ICT 1201.

BTM’s agent in Ireland, Calculating & Statistical Services, made the sale. BTM had a direct presence in Northern Ireland – a factory in Castlereagh that started operations in 1949.

The Sugar Company bought its system, at a cost of £33,000, in order to calculate the payments that it made once a year to 28,000 beet farmers. At the time of purchase it expected the computer to start producing statements for these growers before the end of 1958.

1958 Slow progress at Sugar Company

Irish Sugar Company auditors and accountants made tentative, but unsuccessful attempts to program the BTM 1201 computer to process payments to farmers.

BTM provided assistance in the form of Norman Frances from its Liverpool office. He wrote the first version of a beet payments program. This involved one set of punched cards with sugar beet details and a second set with farmers’ contact data.

The Sugar Company had not yet acquired the card handling and management skills that a system like this would require. BTM therefore assigned Brian Pardoe (1931-1993), an experienced operator of punch card machinery from its bureau in Dublin, to the installation.

According to Gordon Clarke, the software was capable of running under the control of Brian Pardoe in late 1958, but the Sugar Company chose not to use its computer during the beet collection season that year.

September 1958 First computing professional

The British Tabulating Machine (BTM) Company recruited Trinity College Dublin graduate Gordon Clarke, following its decision to employ computer specialists in Ireland to support its system at the Irish Sugar Company.

Other Irish people already worked in computer installations abroad. Through this appointment Gordon became the first computing professional to be based inside the country. He received extensive technical training in Britain on BTM’s products. When ICT superseded BTM, he became a key member of its organisation in Dublin.

Read Gordon Clarke’s testimony

1958 Freelance pioneer

Mathematician Christine Willies, a former BTM Company employee living in Ireland, wrote a regression analysis program for the Irish Sugar Company.

Working freelance, she produced a least squares fit program on the BTM 1201 system, achieving a specific calculation that the Sugar Company required. This project was the first scientific computing activity in Ireland.

When the ESB was considering the acquisition of a BTM computer in early 1959, it engaged Christine to deliver an introductory course on programming to two officials from its accounting machine group. She thus became the first Ireland-based computing trainer as well.

Christine Willies was married to Alec Willies. BTM had sent him from Britain to provide technical support on the computer in Thurles. 

(Photograph by Gordon Clarke, reproduced with permission)

1959 Physicists try programming

Cosmic physicists from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) visited Thurles to evaluate the suitability of the BTM computer for their research. Using the system they succeeded in fitting experimental results to a theoretical curve.

The researchers’ experience on the only electronic computer in the country made them aware that scientific computing involved a demanding data preparation effort. They therefore focused on alternative methods and approaches. For example, DIAS developed a much simpler device for the analysis of microscope readings.

1959 More delays at Sugar Company

The Irish Sugar Company moved its computer and ancillary equipment into a prefabricated building in a field beside the Thurles factory.

ICT’s Brian Pardoe prepared the equipment so that it could process information during the 1959 beet collection season but, as in 1958, the company decided against using the computer.

By now, moreover, some Sugar Company managers wanted to abandon the computing project completely.

1959 Formation of ICT

The British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM) combined with former rival Powers-Samas to create International Computers and Tabulators (ICT).

Summing up its achievements at the time of the merger, BTM boasted that it had ‘over 40 computer installations now in action’.

1960 First full-time programmers Irish Sugar decided to employ its own programmers. The company selected Niall Buckley, Peadar O’Donnell, Dermot Sheehan and Tim Walsh by aptitude test and sent them to England in spring 1960 for training by ICT.
1960 First computer manager

In 1960 Irish Sugar Company appointed a manager to take overall charge of its computing project.

Commerce graduate Eoghan Busteed became ‘manager, central accounts’, but the role was effectively IT management. His staff included the company’s four programmers, ten punch card machine operators and a mailroom team.

May 1960 ICT 1301 launch

ICT announced its 1301 as the successor to the ICT 1201. Targeted at business users, the system used core memory, drum storage and punched cards and offered magnetic tape drives as optional peripherals.

A version with lower specifications was subsequently designated the ICT 1300.

December 1960 First IBM computer

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) took delivery of the first IBM computer in Ireland: an IBM 650. The company, which had begun to use punched card equipment in 1932, also installed six new IBM accounting machines.

An accounting machine group in the ESB department of the chief accountant was responsible for operating the new IBM system.

This photograph shows IBM employees Ehud Rubenstein, John Moriarty and George Connolly at the arrival of the aircraft that transported the computer.

(Photograph by Dick Deegan courtesy of John Moriarty)

Read John Moriarty’s testimony

1960 Sugar Company succeeds

The Sugar Company achieved the original objective of its computing investment at last. Its staff used the ICT system to calculate payments to individual beet growers for the 1960 season.

ICT supported this effort by assigning Gordon Clarke as an adviser to the Sugar Company programmers, along with two on-site engineers and a punch card specialist.

There was more downtime than operational time and re-runs were frequent. But the system was finally able to perform its intended task.

June 1961 Airline reservations plan Aer Lingus formed a team, led by sales manager Finbar Donovan, to implement a real-time flight reservation system. This was closely modelled on a US project, in which IBM and American Airlines were building the Sabre reservations system.
March 1962 First computer at UCD

University College Dublin installed an IBM 1620 – a model that IBM marketed internationally as an inexpensive ‘scientific computer’.

UCD’s computing strategy was initiated and led by its science faculty.

1962 ICT innovations

ICT started to ship its 1300 series to customers.

This new generation of computers featured technologies like germanium transistors and core memory.

Another innovation in the ICT 1300 and 1301 was their ability to perform British currency calculations in hardware. The system’s arithmetic unit had no binary mode. Users could choose to make decimal calculations or  to work with pounds, shillings and pence.

June 1962 First computer at TCD

Computing at Trinity College Dublin started in, and was subsequently led by, the university’s engineering school. Its first system, an IBM 1620, was delivered by lifting the hardware through a first floor window at 21 Lincoln Place on 16 June 1962. Brendan Scaife recorded the arrival of the computer in a series of colour photographs.

In 1967 this IBM 1620 was transferred to Dunsink Observatory for use by the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. In 1974 it was moved again and installed at Dundalk Regional Technological College.

(Photograph source: School of Computer Science and Statistics, TCD)

Read Mike Rogers’s testimony

1962 Agricultural research computer

An Foras Taluntais installed an Elliott 803B computer at its statistics department in Sandymount. The agricultural research organisation acquired this machine for the analysis of field crop experiments and for agricultural statistics.

The system’s manufacturer, Elliott Automation, was a British firm that subsequently merged with English Electric in 1967.

1962 First bureau service

ICT set up a computing bureau in Dublin, equipped with a second-hand ICT 1202. Its customers included Easons and Tynagh Mines.

Calculating & Statistical Services (C&SS), which had previously acted as the company’s agency in Ireland, had a long history of bureau services based on unit record equipment. When ICT assumed direct control over this business, it saw a computing service as a logical addition.

Bureau manager Charlie O’Brien had previously worked on payroll processing services at LEO Computers in England, which had set up a computing bureau in 1956.

1962 New system at Irish Sugar The Sugar Company replaced its four-year-old ICT 1201 with an ICT 1300. The new computer proved to be much more reliable than its predecessor.
1962 PERT projects

The ICT bureau, whose services usually involved accounts and payroll processing, undertook technical computing projects for two construction companies – O’Neills and Cramptons.

These applied the recently developed program evaluation and review technique (PERT) to project management. PERT assisted users to identify and analyse the various tasks required for the completion of a specific building project.

1962 Computer Exposition

The Business Equipment Suppliers Association held a ‘computer exposition’ in the RDS.

This photograph shows the ICT stand, where Pat Rafter (left) and Charles Cooke (third from left) are presenting the company’s technologies to visitors.

The equipment in the foreground is a tabulator with input and output slots for punched cards. The machine behind this is an electronic calculator.

(Photograph by Gordon Clarke, reproduced with permission)