Minicomputing Testimonies

The price of computer technology appeared to be tumbling in the 1970s. Electronic components and software applications had never been more affordable. It seemed remarkable that a company could now install a computer and some rudimentary business management software for less than £100,000.

Computing in Ireland had previously been confined to the biggest organisations. Minicomputers now enabled hundreds of others to acquire their first systems. As in the 1960s, though, the industry revolved around proprietary technologies and every user was hugely dependent on its chosen manufacturer.

The coming of the minicomputer not only expanded the opportunities for the few vendors that already had salesforces in the country. It also facilitated the arrival of other manufacturers, mostly from the technology development hubs of California and Massachusetts. Some of these, moreover, selected Ireland as a location for assembling and testing their systems.

These emerging vendors seldom showed much interest in establishing sales subsidiaries in smaller markets. Most referred enquiries from Ireland to their offices in Britain. Sometimes they were subsequently dragged into the country because their customers demanded better support and access to technical services.

By the start of the 1980s it had also become easier for software developers to sell the same code into one installation after another. The large population of minicomputers around Europe represented an accessible market for packaged applications. And an Irish software industry was born.

Minicomputing – Systems, Software and Strategies

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August 1969 IBM headquarters IBM Ireland moved its base from a group of buildings in Fitzwilliam Place to new headquarters on Burlington Road. The company now ran a regional office in Cork as well.
October 1969 HP presentation Hewlett-Packard participated in the Science Exhibition in the RDS, whose primary purpose was to stimulate the interest of young people in science and technology. The company was represented by its office in Slough, England.

HP had already entered the minicomputer trade at this date, but its presentation in Dublin focused on a programmable electronic calculator. According to the exhibition catalogue, this device was ‘designed for the manipulation of complex numbers and the processing of data in all the sciences and in engineering.’

The company subsequently shipped its calculators to commercial, government and academic customers in Ireland. These machines ran application specific software, stored data on magnetic cards and supported a variety of data input and output peripherals.

1970 Olivetti Auditronic 770 Olivetti launched the Auditronic 770 electronic accounting system, which was powered by a transistor-based computer and stored data on continuous loop magnetic tape cartridges.

The system offered a bridge from accounting machines to computers. In Ireland most of its adopters came from retailing and distribution firms.

January 1970 DEC PDP-11 Digital Equipment announced its PDP-11 family of 16-bit minicomputers, which became a major commercial success for the manufacturer.

The PDP-11 soon supported a selection of operating systems – some developed by Digital, but most originating elsewhere. It was not only employed as a standalone computer, but was also embedded into process control systems.

September 1970 System/3 demonstration IBM Ireland introduced the System/3 by demonstrating the new computer at a ‘commercial productivity exhibition’ in the RDS.

This was the first time in Ireland that a working electronic computer had been displayed in a public venue without air conditioning. Other systems still required the controlled environment of a dedicated computer room.

Read Robert Poynton’s testimony

1971 First System/3 customer IBM delivered the first System/3 in Ireland to pharmaceutical group Beecham.
1971 ICS Computing Ulster Bank bought Belfast-based bureau ICS Computing. The business had been established in 1967 by Tom Winter, a former IBM staff member.

The bank financed the company’s expansion in the early 1970s, when a new subsidiary, ICS Computing (Ireland), opened offices in Dublin and Cork.

July 1971 DEC in Mervue Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) opened its first manufacturing facility in Europe at Mervue, Galway. Cy Kendrick was the original plant manager.

The Galway operation initially assembled and tested PDP-11/20 and PDP-8E computers and PC8-3A paper drives.

In the early years almost all of the components and subassemblies that this factory needed were shipped from the United States.

The photograph shows a 1971 contract signing ceremony at the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) in Dublin. Pictured (l-r) are Patrick Lalor (minister for industry and commerce), Edward Schwartz (DEC general counsel), Pete Kaufmann (DEC vice president), Michael Killeen (IDA managing director), JP Dunne (IDA secretary) and Robert Molloy (minister for local government).

(Photograph source: Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Photographer unknown.)

Read Finbarr Power’s testimony

1972 Computers for typesetting Digital Equipment UK shipped PDP-8s with typesetting software to a number of newspaper publishers in Ireland.

The Belfast Telegraph, the Cork Examiner, the Clonmel Nationalist and Irish Independent adopted this hardware-software combination.

May 1972 System/3 for local government Cork County Council introduced an IBM System/3 model 10.
November 1972 HP 3000 Hewlett-Packard shipped the first HP 3000 in the US, aiming to establish the system as a platform for mainstream business applications rather than scientific and industrial computing. The product ran into teething troubles and did not achieve commercial success until later in the 1970s.

The majority of HP’s computing revenues at this time came from the 2100 series, whose real-time operating system was best suited to industrial and engineering applications.

1973 Singer System Ten Singer Business Machines introduced its System Ten, a partitioned memory minicomputer, to Ireland. It targeted this product at small businesses and the price of the machines started at less than £50,000.

The launch of the System Ten was accompanied by a change of trading name by Singer’s international office equipment business, which previously operated as Friden. Under that title its Dublin office had specialised in products and services that gathered data for computer bureau services.

Friden’s Flexowriter product combined a typewriter with a paper tape punch that was mainly used to capture invoice details for processing by University Computing Company or Independent Computer Bureau Services (one of the predecessors of Cara Data Processing).

1973 Honeywell in Social Welfare The Department of Social Welfare installed two Honeywell minicomputers, linked to the civil service mainframe in Kilmainham. The first application on these systems managed disability benefits.
1973 First System Ten JJ Haslett, a food wholesaler based in Derriaghy outside Belfast, placed the first order in Ireland for a Singer System Ten.
1973 Burroughs at TCD Burroughs delivered a B1714 system to the Department of Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin. The manufacturer had introduced this machine in 1972 to compete with IBM’s System/3.

TCD introduced the Burroughs minicomputer to take over some of the workload on its heavily utilised and ageing IBM mainframe. The B1714 remained in service until 1979.

1973 System Dynamics software Dublin-based consulting firm System Dynamics started to develop minicomputer software for customers that used the Digital Equipment PDP-11.

The company had previously focused on IBM mainframe technologies. It delivered technical training and hired out its staff to work on customer assignments. Its projects. The PDP-11 projects in the mid-1970s centred on applications development and its clientele included ESB, UCD, Gilbeys and Brooks Thomas.

System Dynamics never attempted to package any of this software for wider sale or distribution.

1973 First Nixdorf user Wexford Farmers Co-Operative in Enniscorthy ordered a Nixdorf 820 minicomputer and became the system maker’s first customer in Ireland.
February 1973 Nixdorf Computer Nixdorf Computer set up a marketing and service subsidiary in Ireland.

The new organisation was headed by country manager Maurice O’Grady, who had previously worked for office products supplier Bryan S Ryan. The initial staff of seven included software manager Hilary Doyle, who had sold Olivetti systems at Bryan S Ryan.

Read Hilary Louis Doyle’s testimony

September 1973 DEC in Ballybrit Digital Equipment expanded into a second premises in Galway and held an official opening event at its new production facility in Ballybrit.
1974 Nixdorf 8835 Nixdorf Computer released its 8835 as a standalone business computer. This system featured interchangeable 5 Mb hard disks instead of the ledger cards used by its predecessors.
1974 PDPs for Bell Waterford-based Bell Lines installed a Digital Equipment PDP-11/40 at its Dublin office, a PDP-11/10 in Waterford and five more PDP-11/10s at port locations outside Ireland, including Rotterdam, London and Le Havre.

SM Byrne, a software company in Birmingham, developed most of the Mumps-based applications that Bell ran on these systems.

1974 System Ten for United Drug United Drug selected Singer Business Machines’ System Ten for order processing, following a study of its requirements by consultants from System Dynamics.

Singer offered an order entry package whose indexed file system used an early form of auto-completion. This assisted users to find records in the file as they entered a reference key, a technique that suited the complexities of pharmaceutical product naming.

1974 Digital Equipment Ireland Digital Equipment set up a sales and service organization in Ireland for the first time, having previously channelled all sales in the country through an office in Manchester.

Pat O’Sullivan, who had previously worked for Honeywell, led this initiative. He started to sell the company’s computers from his home in Malahide with administrative assistance by Patricia Flahive.

In 1975 Digital Equipment Ireland moved into Park House in North Circular Road, initially renting just part of the ground floor.

Read Finbarr Power’s testimony

1974 ICL 2903 ICL introduced the 2903 computer as a competitor to the IBM System/3.

This machine was technically compatible with ICL 1900 mainframes, but its performance was comparable with IBM’s mid-range offering.

1974 Applied Management Systems Matt Crotty, who had previously worked for Honeywell, set up Dublin software company Applied Management Systems (AMS) to focus on implementing the new generation of minicomputers. Many of the company’s early recruits had previously worked in Irish Life’s computer department.

AMS initially produced packages for Digital Equipment’s PDP-8, including an administration system for vocational education committees.

In later years, however, the company became known as a developer of accounting and financial planning applications for IBM’s mid-range systems.

Read Barry Murphy’s testimony

1974 McKeown Software Gerry McKeown established GC McKeown & Company in Dublin. 

Later known as McKeown Software, this venture initially developed applications for the Digital Equipment PDP-11.

1974 MCS Management and Computer Systems (MCS), a bureau service in west Dublin, became an early adopter of the ICL 2093.

The company was formed by former staff from the computing department at Clondalkin Paper Mills, which had run an ICT/ICT mainframe since the mid-1960s. MCS therefore based its batch processing services on ICL hardware.

1974 PDP ousts mainframe The board of Glen Abbey selected a Digital Equipment PDP-11 as the replacement for an IBM System/360 mainframe at its premises in Tallaght. The company’s computer department had previously planned to migrate to an IBM System/370 and had already converted much of its applications software.

This was an unusual decision at the time. Not only did it involve a minicomputer displacing a mainframe. It was still very rare for one computer vendor to dislodge another at an established installation.

1974 IBETA show The Irish Business Equipment Trade Association held its first Irish Business Trade Exhibition.
1974 First computers at Met Office The Meteorological Service installed two Digital Equipment PDP-11/40 minicomputers at its headquarters in O’Connell Street, Dublin.

These systems supported data collection from the service’s own monitoring stations and from international weather forecasting networks. Before their introduction, this information had to be obtained by teleprinter, telephone and telex.

1975 Paymaster General project The Paymaster General’s Office introduced two top-end Nixdorf 820 systems to process a weekly and monthly payroll for 23,000 civil service pensioners. The Nixdorf software department produced special software for the project – one of a number prompted by the implementation of PAYE tax procedures in the civil service.
1975 First DG installation Neodata Services installed a Data General minicomputer at its premises in Limerick, making it the first DG customer in Ireland. The company employed some 800 data entry staff at six locations in the Limerick / Kerry area, providing back office services to US customers. These included the registration of ‘cigarette coupons’ and subscriptions management for Playboy magazine.

The computer maker channelled its sales into Ireland at this time through a DG office in Manchester.

January 1975 IBM System/32 IBM launched its IBM System/32 – a single-user business computer, targeted at accounting applications and using RPGII as its main programming language.

The computer looked like a large office desk with a six-line display screen and a built-in printer.

1975 IBM’s minicomputer division IBM Ireland formed a general systems division (GSD), managed by Joe Rooney, with responsibility for minicomputer sales and a special focus on the System/32.

GSD aimed to sell computers to companies that had never used them before. Accordingly the new group opened a demonstration centre in Dublin and sent a System/32 roadshow around the country.

Read Declan Ganter’s testimony