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.

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1969-74: A different type of customer

The IBM System/3 made its first appearance in Ireland at an exhibition in the Royal Dublin Society in late 1970 – more than a year after IBM had announced this new range in the US.

The classic form of minicomputing – as experienced by large numbers of hardware and software engineers – began with the System/3. At the start of the 1970s manufacturers still expected that customers would rent their machines, rather than buying them. The monthly rental fee for IBM’s minicomputer was far lower than it had charged before. Users could acquire a System/3 for half the cost of the smallest System/360 mainframe.

Its arrival was particularly important for IBM Ireland, which had struggled for years to identify potential mainframe adopters. Companies that employed large concentrations of office workers to churn out invoices and statements could justify the installation and running costs of a System/360, but few organisations in Ireland operated on that scale. Even the biggest IBM Ireland customers, such as Aer Lingus and the Electricity Supply Board, could meet their computing objectives with the less powerful members of IBM’s mainframe family.

The new minicomputers – or ‘mid-range’ systems in IBM parlance – were designed to handle more modest workloads, making them a much better fit for Ireland. The System/3 enabled IBM to engage with a different type of customer. In the early 1970s it targeted manufacturing and distribution firms that were relatively large by local standards, but would have been classified as small businesses elsewhere. IBM made such firms aware that they could now afford a real computer.

Organisations like these, indeed, could choose among a variety of data processing strategies. Many still relied on electromechanical accounting machines that produced printed records of commercial transactions. Others signed up for bureau services that offered off-site data processing on mainframes.

The System/3 was also adopted by financial institutions, including a number of building societies. Another cluster of users appeared as the 1970s advanced: the foreign companies that were opening assembly facilities or customer support units with incentives from the Irish government. Their parent organisations frequently ran IBM mainframes, but the branch plants in Ireland were clear candidates for minicomputers.

Bureau services expanded during the first half of the decade, but they contracted as more customers switched to in-house computing. These operations played a transitional role in the spread of new technologies. Bureau customers often installed data preparation equipment or upmarket accounting machines that encoded data onto tapes that the computers could read. Alternatively they could engage specialist data entry companies to rejig their accounting information into computer-compatible formats. Bureau services thus guided their customers towards new practices that would later assist them to retire the non-electronic equipment.

Bureau users also got to know the men and women – most of them were men – who went on to launch and grow computer distribution and software development businesses in later years.

One thing that had not changed since the 1960s was that computing projects unfolded very slowly. IBM and other vendors launched new products in some geographies long before others. The preparation and evaluation of sales proposals were complex, often cumbersome processes. The waiting time between ordering and receiving a new system could stretch to many months.

Most installations still required at least some original software, so applications development and testing added further delays. By the middle of the 1970s, however, computer skills were more readily available from system vendors, bureau services and a small, but subsequently important, group of specialist software firms. The spread of minicomputers created career opportunities for more and more hardware and software engineers.

IBM went on to introduce the System/32 in 1975 and promoted it as a souped up accounting machine. This model did not even look like a proper computer – it was more like a kitchen unit with a printer bolted onto the side. Other suppliers, meanwhile, had already introduced computers that were even smaller and less expensive.

1975-80: The new challengers

Until the mid-1970s either IBM or ICL supplied most of the computers in Ireland – apart from specialist products, such as desktop machines for engineers and scientists that were usually sold as ‘calculators’. Other vendors showed little interest in the slim pickings available in such a small market. The main exception to this rule was Honeywell, which had opened a Dublin office and secured a foothold at the Revenue Commissioners back in 1967.

More contenders appeared in the minicomputer era. Nixdorf Computer arrived in 1972, recruiting a sales team that had previously handled Olivetti’s desktop calculators. Data preparation specialist Friden changed its name to Singer Business Machines and launched the System Ten as an affordable computer for small companies. ICL subsequently took over sales of this product.

Neodata, which provided international business services from offices in the midwest, installed a Data General Nova in 1975. Two years later Hewlett-Packard’s HP 1000 real-time system made its Irish debut at Measurex. Wang Laboratories delivered a VS minicomputer to Bord na gCapall in 1980. Dublin-based Leo Laboratories became Prime Computer’s first customer in Ireland in the same year. By the turn of the decade Perkin-Elmer had supplied a system to Trinity College Dublin and computer services provider Cara had established a partnership with BTI Computer Systems.

Most of these newcomers followed a common strategy. They entered the country without a fanfare. The majority were drawn in only because an existing customer wanted their systems for new factories or offices in Ireland. The computer vendors seldom employed any local personnel until those users called for technical support. First they made arrangements to provide customer engineering services. Later on they added sales staff.

Establishing a presence was thus a piecemeal process that usually unfolded over a number of years. Hewlett-Packard, indeed, spent almost a decade laying the foundations for its Irish subsidiary.

Visitors from HP’s electronic calculator group began to sell its products in the late 1960s. Engineering and manufacturing organisations installed these desktop systems with different peripheral devices and application specific software. These users often regarded the calculators as critical for their operations. HP maintained the equipment by flying in support staff from abroad, but this did not always satisfy the customers.

By the middle of the decade it made economic sense for the company to employ its own engineers in Ireland. Ted Hearne was the first. He had joined HP UK in 1973 as a calculator engineer and relocated to Ireland in October 1975, having received additional training so that he could also support computer products. He worked from home – as did a colleague who was seconded to Ireland to sell more calculators – until he opened the company’s first Dublin office in March 1977. Hewlett-Packard Ireland Limited was incorporated at around this time.

In the same year a Measurex facility in Waterford took delivery of the first HP computer in Ireland. The company supplied industrial control equipment and required an HP 1000 to ensure that its own products were interoperable. Measurex sourced this system through a corporate purchasing agreement, not via the new Dublin office.

Hewlett-Packard’s computer division then appointed Frank Cole, who had previously sold its systems in the Soviet Union, to generate new business in Ireland. He took up this post in 1978, focusing on the HP 3000 minicomputer – a platform for mainstream business applications – and on the low-end HP 250 system. The first locally negotiated order for a HP 3000 came from the Construction Industry Federation. This deal, however, exposed a scarcity of software and development skills for the system, prompting HP Ireland to sign up two local partner companies that would import or write suitable applications.

By the early 1980s Hewlett-Packard had not only secured a mix of foreign-owned and indigenous customers, but had also supplemented its limited resources with the skills and support of Irish companies.

Even the biggest of the new challengers ramped up very slowly in its formative years.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) made its first appearance in Ireland in the late 1960s, when it shipped two PDP-8 minicomputers to an air traffic communications facility near Shannon Airport. The company’s branch office in Manchester logged additional sales in the following years, including a number of PDP-8s that it delivered to newspapers with typesetting software. In 1974 DEC selected Honeywell veteran Pat O’Sullivan to expand its customer base. He worked from home initially, but the company opened an office in Dublin in the following year.

Like HP, Digital shipped minicomputers to the subsidiaries of international corporations. The majority of its sales, however, went to Irish-based organisations. DEC was particularly successful at forging partnerships with bureau services and software development companies. Its early affiliates included AMS, System Dynamics and GC McKeown.

It was common in this era for computer corporations to treat their home countries as natural markets, where they held pole position in contests for public sector contracts. Digital Equipment, which had begun to assemble and test its computers in Galway at the start of 1970s, achieved the status of a ‘national champion’ in Ireland. There was a clear perception in government departments, state agencies and ‘semi-state’ commercial companies that buying DEC hardware was a safe option – especially for executives who wanted to advance their careers.

Digital thus performed much better in Ireland than in other territories. Minicomputer vendors Nixdorf and Wang also succeeded in punching above their weight in the early 1980s. The reasons varied, but the high achievers tended to have the shortest chains of command from, and best personal connections with, their corporate headquarters.

Whenever the computer firms were asked to explain their strengths, however, they invariably talked about the availability and quality of applications software for their systems.

1981-82: Software as a product

The term ‘computer services’ had multiple meanings in the 1970s. It not only referred to support and maintenance services for day-to-day data processing operations. It also covered the installation of air-conditioned computer rooms, the supply of special stationery for line printers and advisory services for financial managers. After the Irish Computer Services Association was formed in 1978, indeed, its most visible representatives were consultants from accountancy practices.

Software package developers had a relatively low profile on this services spectrum. Such firms achieved substantial exports in the 1980s. But their rise was never foreseen by the representative bodies of Irish industry and received scant support from government agencies.

Many of the better known Irish software companies of this generation, moreover, would not have described themselves as product developers. They certainly wanted to create code for paying customers. They also offered technical training, hired out computing professionals for time-based fees or helped data processing managers to recruit permanent staff. They were certainly aware that the repeated use of standardised applications was reducing the cost of software. And they often perceived this trend as more of a threat than an opportunity.

The shift towards packaged software was evident in Ireland before it became apparent in other places, because minicomputers dominated the systems trade and because most of the foreign-owned manufacturing facilities had similar software requirements. They wanted applications for production planning, inventory management, cross-border product distribution and customer billing in multiple currencies. These needs differed from the computer departments of their parent organisations in the US. So the satellite factories asked their minicomputer vendors for advice. These, in turn, directed their local partners to look into the problem.

Small Irish software companies soon began developing applications for international corporations. Because so many assembly facilities used computers like the PDP-11 and the System/32 – not only in Ireland but also throughout Europe – these applications could be installed in one location after another. Software thus became a product. Computing services had spawned a new trade.

Each development firm was tightly coupled with a system vendor. AMS, COPS and RTS became IBM affiliates. GC McKeown and Mentec had close ties with Digital. Supple Software and Rainsford Computing worked with Data General and MA Systems with ICL. Cara and CCI supported Hewlett-Packard and Barrett Computer Sales was associated with Wang.

The business model for packaging and supporting applications matured very quickly. The basic practices and processes were all in place when other ventures started to create business applications for microcomputers. Because the costs of developing and releasing applications for these inexpensive machines were so low, the next wave of software company formation was much bigger.

By the early 1980s, moreover, minicomputers had outgrown their traditional tasks like running ledgers, processing payrolls and controlling industrial machinery. The vendors had also adapted them for office automation. Most of the computer makers sold software that they themselves had written to handle everyday business procedures. Suites such as Digital’s All-in-1, Data General’s Comprehensive Electronic Office and Wang Office offered text processing, screen-based messaging and information retrieval capabilities.

For in-house data processing chiefs, this looked like a way to expand their influence and authority. Minicomputer terminals on office desks had enormous potential as multi-purpose devices. Many organisations, however, installed batches of single-purpose word processors instead. Users tended to treat these like fancy typewriters. The top-down and bottom-up philosophies of office technology clashed, sparking off a debate on computing strategy that would continue for years to come.

The text- and communications-oriented office applications also highlighted the difficulties of transferring information from one type of minicomputer to another. In the early 1980s the industry started to explore neutral standards for tasks like document transfer and inter-organisation messaging. Over the next decade common standards for databases and operating systems evolved as well, while different vendors started driving their systems with the same microprocessors. Proprietary computing technologies gradually lost their sheen.

Minicomputers accounted for the overwhelming majority of information technology expenditure in Ireland during the 1980s. In terms of public awareness, however, this became the decade of the personal computer. In January 1983 IBM Ireland launched its first PC and a new chapter in computing history commenced.

Last edit: June 2017

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