History of Computing in the UK: A Resource Guide

History of computing in the UK: a resource guide

Compiled by James Sumner. Version 1.1, 5 December 2010



General histories and surveys
British-focused survey texts | International survey texts with notable British content

Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and automated calculation in the nineteenth century

Douglas Hartree and analogue computing

Alan Turing and computability theory

Early research computers
Bletchley Park and GCHQ | National Physical Laboratory | University of Manchester | University of Cambridge | Birkbeck College, University of London

Early commercial computers
Ferranti | LEO | Elliott Brothers and Elliott-Automation | ICL

Process control


Large-scale computing initiatives after 1970

Personal computing
Hardware producers | Software producers


James W Cortada, A Bibliographic Guide to the History of Computing, Computers, and the Information Processing Industry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood 1990.

The only book-length bibliographic work currently useful for the UK, and very comprehensive for English-language material in general. Often classified by locality or individual, with sections on Douglas Hartree, ACE/Turing, etc. Obviously, reflects the state of the literature at the time of writing: therefore, largely technical and hardware-focused. Unfortunately, the very limited literature on UK software of any kind means that Cortada’s companion Bibliographic Guide to the History of Computer Applications (1996) is not similarly useful as a starting-point for Britain.

General histories and surveys

There is no single-volume general history of British computing. Most of the best-known starting-points focus on the USA, including Paul Ceruzzi’s History of Modern Computing, Martin Campbell-Kelly’s survey history of software, and the journalistic studies of personal computing by Steven Levy and Robert X Cringely.

There are, however, several wide-ranging studies of computing from the pre-electronic period to the consolidation of British computer manufacturing in the 1960s. In particular, the first three texts below can usefully be read together to give a good technical and policy overview, before tackling more specialised work.

British-focused survey texts

Martin Campbell-Kelly, ICL: a business and technical history. Oxford: Clarendon 1989.

International Computers Limited (ICL) was the national flagship corporation, constructed through mergers and rationalisations in the years to 1968. The conglomerate embraced so many of Britain’s formerly independent computing interests that Campbell-Kelly’s field covers practically the whole history of automated information processing in the UK. Since his timeframe runs back to the early punched-card era, coverage is necessarily selective, focusing on the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM), Hollerith/IBM’s licensee in Britain and the Empire to 1948; BTM’s principal rival, Powers-Samas; the creation of ICL, and its development to the mid-1980s.

John Hendry, Innovating for Failure: government policy and the early British computer industry. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1989.

Straddling business history and industrial policy analysis, Hendry looks at British governmental attempts to foster an internationally competitive computer industry, from the immediate postwar period to the end of the 1960s. Focuses chiefly on the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC, 1949-59) and its relations with hardware producers including Ferranti, Elliott and BTM. Concludes that national-level intervention aimed at changing the strategic direction of commercial producers was largely unworkable.

Simon Lavington, Early British Computers. Manchester: Manchester University Press 1980.

Still the best short overview of early digital computer designs in Britain. The well-known foundational projects at the NPL (ACE), Cambridge (EDSAC) and Manchester (Mark I) are each surveyed in a few pages; later chapters address work by Elliott, STC, LEO and English Electric, plus the consolidation which produced ICL and the role of the NRDC. Little detail on Colossus was available at time of compilation. Written largely from a technical perspective and focused on hardware production, but assumes no prior specialist knowledge, and includes appendices suitable for beginners.

Mary Croarken, Early Scientific Computing in Britain. Oxford: Clarendon 1990.

Concise scholarly overview of numerical computation for scientific purposes in Britain from the 1900s to the 1950s. Focus is on organisation, and the emergence of “computing centres” (dedicated facilities serving a range of computation needs), chiefly the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) Mathematics Division. Technologies addressed include tables, arithmometers and similar mechanical devices, tabulators, differential analysers and (briefly) the first electronic digital projects at the NPL, Cambridge and Manchester. Draws appropriate attention to institutional factors and user needs.

Jon Agar, The Government Machine: a revolutionary history of the computer. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 2003.

Examines computers in the wider context of twentieth-century information management. Agar sees the rise of computing technology as a part of the general growth of the large information organisation, as typified by the Civil Service “machine.”

Marie Hicks, “Compiling inequalities: computerization in the British Civil Service and nationalized industries, 1940-1979”. PhD thesis. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, 2009.

Follows Agar on the machinery of government, and goes further in keeping the focus on employees’ pay structures and professional status claims: computerisation features as a process which both shaped and had to respond to developments here. Hicks finds that computer operation was commonly assigned to women (on formally sanctioned lower pay scales) so long as it was perceived as menial; rising status only led to the institutional exclusion of women. The inflexible British state mentality on gender in the workplace (not typical among the countries of the emerging EEC) was a factor in Britain’s relative technical decline. Articles drawn from the dissertation can be read at www.mariehicks.net

International survey texts with notable British content

There are several long-view histories of computing which draw mainly on US material but give a foundational role to certain British developments (usually the work of Charles Babbage and Alan Turing), and consider early transatlantic collaboration towards stored-program digital computers –a narrative tradition which originated with Vivian Bowden’s Faster than Thought in 1953.

The Dream Machine (TV documentary). BBC TV, 1991, 5 ´ 57 minutes. (USA: The Machine That Changed the World, PBS, 1992).

Parts 1 to 3 of this five-part series present an accessible introductory survey of computing from the nineteenth century to the desktop era, featuring interviews with many significant figures. British material includes Babbage and Lovelace; Bletchley Park (subject of an interview with Donald Michie) and Colossus; Turing, the early Manchester and Cambridge projects, and LEO.

The series is commercially unavailable, but volunteers have made a copy of the US version (different narration, but largely identical content) available on Viddler with helpful index markers. Access via <http://waxy.org/2008/06/the_machine_that_changed_the_world/>.

Michael R Williams, A History of Computing Technology, 2nd edition. London: Wiley 1997.

Semi-popular overview from the ancient world to the 1960s, with significant coverage of early analogue computers. Focuses on mathematical and technical elements, rather than commercial or social aspects of production or use.

Pioneers of Computing. 20 cassette audiotapes plus booklet. London: Science Museum, 1976.

The result of extensive interview work by Christopher Riche Evans, a researcher at the National Physical Laboratory. International in scope, but with a strong focus on the UK, making it the best first-hand source for the early electronic computing field in Britain. Good coverage of NPL, Bletchley Park, Manchester, Cambridge, LEO and Birkbeck projects, via interviews with Andrew Booth, Allen Coombs, Donald Davies, Tommy Flowers, Harry Huskey, Tom Kilburn, Max Newman, John Pinkerton, Arthur Porter, James H Wilkinson and Freddie Williams. No longer available to buy. Copies are held in various archives including the NAHC.

Mike Hally, Electronic Brains: stories from the dawn of the computer age. London: Granta 2005.

Episodic popular account, mostly 1940s-50s, giving particular attention to British cases, and to one Australian case.

David Alan Grier, When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005

Broad history of computation, and the workers who performed it, in the pre-electronic period from the mid-eighteenth to late twentieth century. British cases addressed include George Airy and the Greenwich Observatory; Babbage; Karl Pearson and computation in statistics; Leslie Comrie, the Scientific Computing Service, and the Admiralty Computing Service of the Second World War.

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: a history of the information machine,2nd edition. Boulder: Westview 2004.

Worth noting as the best single-volume general introduction to the history of computing, though its UK coverage is light: brief treatment of Charles Babbage, Lord Kelvin’s work on analogue tide predictors, and the 1940s projects at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge. Alan Turing, computability and cryptography are largely absent. Accounts of personal computing, counter-culturalism and communications are based on US cases.

Raúl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen, eds. The First Computers: history and architectures. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

Disparate section on “The British Scene” (the USA, Germany and Japan are also covered) includes four short technical accounts — Tony Sale on Colossus, Brian Napper on various incarnations of the Manchester Mark I, Chris Burton on the 1998 Manchester Baby rebuild, Frank Sumner on Atlas – plus Martin Campbell-Kelly on the Edsac simulator developed at Warwick, in a piece addressing heritage issues (see also Jon Agar’s “Digital Patina”).

Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and automated calculation in the nineteenth century

Babbage is surrounded by mythology; Lovelace, his collaborator and chief contemporary interpreter, even more so. Much of this derives from the colourful, yet not particularly accurate account in Bowden’s Faster Than Thought. Tread carefully, particularly when dealing with unreferenced texts aimed at popular audiences. Note also that the best-known primary literature (Lovelace’s “Sketch”, Babbage’s Passages) is particularly rewarding.

Anthony Hyman, Charles Babbage: pioneer of the computer. Princeton University Press 1982.

Still the best book-length biography of Babbage. Semi-popular with scholarly referencing. Occasionally problematic, e.g. in taking at face value Babbage’s own assessment of opponents such as George Airy. (On this tendency, see Doron Swade, “The Shocking Truth about Babbage and his Calculating Engines.” Resurrection, New Year 2004, 18-27; online at <http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/CCS/res/res32.htm#d>.)

Allan G Bromley, “Difference and Analytical Engines” in William Aspray, ed, Computing Before Computers. Ames: Iowa State University Press 1990.

Technical account of how Babbage’s engines (would have) worked. Also includes information on the Scheutz Difference Engine and other, later machines.

Doron Swade, The Cogwheel Brain: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. London: Abacus 2000.

The first two-thirds of this popular study present a biographical survey of Babbage and his machines, unreferenced but with some original research. The remainder is an indispensable first-hand account of efforts to construct a working Difference Engine Number 2 for the Science Museum, to original plans, in time for the 1991 bicentenary of Babbage’s birth.

Michael R Williams, A History of Computing Technology, 2nd edition. London: Wiley 1997. Chapter 4.

Accessible account of workings of the Babbage and Scheutz machines.

Simon Schaffer, “Babbage’s Intelligence: calculating engines and the factory system.” Critical Inquiry 21 (1994) 203-227.

The importance of social and geographical place, setting Babbage in the wider context of Victorian industrialism.

Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow, eds, Cultural Babbage: technology, time and invention. London: Faber and Faber 1996.

Interdisciplinary collection, using the realities, aspirations and myths of Babbage’s machines as jumping-off points to explore science/culture relations more broadly. The most Babbage-focused piece is by Doron Swade, who addresses Babbage’s historical reputation, and the role of miracles in his demonstrations with the model Difference Engine. See also Simon Schaffer on Babbage’s early interest in automata.

Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. 1864; various reprint editions.

Babbage’s autobiography. Tremendously readable; offers many insights into the life of an eccentric and sometimes tragic character. 1994 edition (London: Pickering and Chatto) uses the text prepared by Martin Campbell-Kelly for the Works, and has a new introduction by Campbell-Kelly.

Luigi Menabrea, translated with additional notes by “A.A.L.” [Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace], “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage.” Scientific Memoirs 3 (1843), 666-731. Online transcript at <www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html>. [Menabrea’s original text, in French, appeared in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, 1842].

The single most influential account of the unbuilt Engine’s nature and possibilities. Includes the famous Jacquard loom analogy. Presentation of the online transcript suggests that Lovelace was acknowledged as the author of the Sketch, which is not the case: the subscription “A.A.L.” was the only published clue to her identity.

The Works of Charles Babbage, ed. Martin Campbell-Kelly. London: Pickering and Chatto (Pickering Masters), 1989. 11 vols.

For the serious devotee. pp2700, including all Babbage’s known published writings. Introduction by I Bernard Cohen.

Dorothy Stein, Ada: a life and a legacy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1985.

First critical biography of Augusta Ada King (née Byron), Countess of Lovelace. Challenges both the lurid (use of mathematics in gambling systems, victimisation by blackmailers etc) and hagiographic accounts (including the “first programmer” claim: indeed, Stein presents Lovelace’s mathematical abilities as relatively limited). Generally good on the peculiar position of a socially privileged, mathematically inclined woman in nineteenth-century society, but introduces problems of its own, via ahistorical application of twentieth-century psychology. Best consulted alongside Toole’s biography.

Betty A Toole, Ada: the enchantress of numbers. Mill Valley, California: Strawberry Press 1992.

Tells Lovelace’s story largely through excerpts from letters to Babbage and others, with commentary. Opposing Stein and several Babbage scholars, restores Lovelace as an able mathematician and independent contributor to the Analytical Engine account, without accepting the “first programmer” legend.

Douglas Hartree and analogue computing

Small, James, The Analogue Alternative: the electronic analogue computer in Britain and the USA, 1930-1975. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis 2001.

Definitive overview.

Mary Croarken, Early Scientific Computing in Britain. Oxford: Clarendon 1990.

Chapter 5, pp47-60, is a useful brief survey of the differential analyser projects at Manchester and Cambridge.

Mark Bowles, “US technological enthusiasm and British technological scepticism in the age of the analog brain”. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18 (1996), 5-15.

Considers Douglas Hartree as a “voice in the wilderness” whose differential analyser was largely ignored, says Bowles, owing to the prevailing theoretical mindset in British physical science. This is contrasted with Vannevar Bush’s well-funded and better publicised US work.

Charlotte Froese Fischer, Douglas Rayner Hartree: his life in science and computing. Singapore: World Scientific, 2003.

By a former Hartree student. Includes a chapter on the differential analyser, with early photographs.

Arthur Porter, “Building the Manchester differential analyzers: a personal reflection”. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 25 (2003), 86-92.

First-hand recollection by an early Hartree student and close collaborator, running from initial meeting with Hartree in 1933 to PhD graduation in 1936. Touches on applications of the differential analyser, sponsorship, and press interest in the Meccano machines.

Simon Lavington, Moving Targets: Elliott-Automation and the dawn of the computer age in Britain, 1947-67. London: Springer, forthcoming 2011.

Chapter 4 on Elliott’s role in 1950s analogue computing, including the Tridac machine, developed for interception studies at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, possibly the largest analogue computer ever built.

Alan Turing and computability theory

See also “Bletchley Park” below, and “National Physical Laboratory” for Turing’s work on the ACE project. 

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: the enigma. London: Vintage 1992 (originally published 1983).

Definitive Turing biography, ranging with ease across mathematics, philosophy, psychology, sexuality, institutional and international politics, and the most mundane details in the life of a profoundly complex character. Constantly sympathetic without tipping over into hagiography.

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing Website at <www.turing.org.uk>.

Online companion-piece to Hodges’ book. Includes a brief introductory biography, bibliography, and notes on archives and other principal primary sources.

Jon Agar, Turing and the Universal Machine: the making of the modern computer. Cambridge: Icon 2001.

Effective, fairly simple brief survey of major issues surrounding Turing, computability and universality, aimed at a general audience.

Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 59 (1950) 433-460. Reprinted in various publications (see bibliography on Andrew Hodges’ Turing site for details) and online in several places including <cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/00000499/00/turing.html>.

Much of Turing’s classic contribution to machine intelligence theory is (unlike his other well-known publications) very accessible to non-specialist readers.

B Jack Copeland, ed, The Essential Turing. Oxford: Clarendon 2004.

Extensive collection of Turing’s own writings (together with some material from various colleagues), spanning 1936-54 and so covering computability, the Bletchley Park years, automatic computing, artificial intelligence and morphogenesis. Copeland adds an introduction to each source text, and provides several analytical overview pieces.

The Collected Works of A M Turing. Amsterdam: North-Holland 1992-2001. 4 volumes.

Thematic collections. Volumes 1 on “Mechanical Intelligence” (ed. Darrel Ince), 2 on “Morphogenesis” (ed. Peter Saunders) and 3 on “Pure Mathematics” (ed. John Britton) are dated 1992; Volume 4 on “Mathematical Logic” (ed. Robin Gandy and Michael Yates) is dated 2001.

Early research computers

Any division of early computer work into “research” and “commercial” categories is open to question. The history of early British development is strongly characterised by partnerships between academic or national bodies and industry (most notably, University of Manchester/Ferranti; University of Cambridge/LEO; NPL/English Electric), involving much transfer and sharing of concepts and personnel.

For convenience, this section on “research” lists work dealing with computers developed or used at Government and university sites (although the classified codebreaking work of the 1940s was hardly “research” in the later accepted sense). “Early commercial computers”, below, deals with computers manufactured for sale and the associated corporate histories. There is one particularly useful general study:

Jon Agar, “The provision of digital computers to British universities up to the Flowers Report (1966)”. Computer Journal 39:7 (1996), 630-642.

By recording not only actual provision, but also the (often unsuccessful) requests made by various universities, Agar gives a good overview of the working arrangements British research computer users thought feasible and desirable during the computer allocation rounds of 1955-6 and 1957-61. Almost all requests were for British machines, mostly Ferranti in the case of the first round. Also traces tensions between policy commitments to regional centres (Manchester, Cambridge, London, later Edinburgh) and growing moves for distributed access in a general period of university expansion. The Flowers Report, the result of a consultation exercise to formalise policy, largely reaffirmed existing trends.

Bletchley Park and GCHQ

I J Good, “Pioneering work on computers at Bletchley”, and Brian Randell, “The COLOSSUS”, in Nicholas Metropolis, Jack Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota, eds, A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century. New York: Academic Press 1980, pp 31-45 and 47-92.

Most detailed of the early published accounts of this long-classified project. Good’s account uses first-hand recollections; Randell, interviews and a limited number of public records declassified in 1975, including several photographs reproduced here. Not to be confused with Randell’s, “COLOSSUS: Godfather of the computer”, prepared as a New Scientist article and reproduced in the 1982 edition of his anthology The Origins of Digital Computers, which is much shorter and lacks the documentation.

F Harry Hinsley and Alan Stripp, eds, Codebreakers: the inside story of Bletchley Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994.

Multi-author volume consisting entirely of first-hand recollections by those who worked on Britain’s wartime cryptanalysis programme, including Colossus and other computing machines, and edited by two Bletchley Park insiders. Gives a good sense of the sheer scale and variety of the operations surrounding the information-processing endeavour.

B Jack Copeland, ed., Colossus: the secrets of Bletchley Park’s codebreaking computers. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006.

Large collection dedicated to the large-scale cryptanalysis machines, including brief sections on assembly and development at Dollis Hill. Some scholarly referencing, but aimed largely at the general reader: a mixture of first-hand recollections and secondary, often journalistic overview pieces. Draws on material still classified at the time of Hinsley and Stripp’s publication. Notably includes (p83), posthumously, Tommy Flowers’ negative comments on the long-extended policy of official secrecy regarding the Bletchley Park machines.

Simon Lavington, “In the footsteps of Colossus: a description of Oedipus”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 28:2 (2006), 4-55.

First public account of Oedipus, a large rapid data-processing machine developed 1951-5 by GCHQ (successor to the Bletchley Park cryptanalysis group) in collaboration with Ferranti and Elliott. Dedicated to seeking matches of text phrases against a stored dictionary, Oedipus required what was for its period an enormous direct-access memory. Like its Bletchley Park predecessors, Oedipus was subject to stringent long-term secrecy.

National Physical Laboratory

B Jack Copeland, ed., Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine: the master codebreaker’s struggle to build the modern computer. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005.

Wide-ranging collection, not as Turing-focused as the title suggests. Includes Eileen Magnello’s long-view survey of measurement and computation at the NPL; Mary Croarken on the NPL Mathematics Division; and several pieces on the Pilot ACE and ACE projects by insiders and historians. Also transcripts of primary papers by Turing, James H Wilkinson and Harry Huskey.

James H Wilkinson, “Turing’s work at the National Physical Laboratory and the construction of Pilot ACE, DEUCE, and ACE”, in Nicholas Metropolis, Jack Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota, eds, A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century. New York: Academic Press 1980, pp 101-114.

Insider’s survey of design concepts and organisational history. Mostly addresses the post-Turing period, when Wilkinson had a leading development role, and includes a brief account of the role of Harry Huskey.

David M Yates. Turing’s Legacy: a history of computing at the National Physical Laboratory, 1945-1995. London: Science Museum 1997.

Institutional history. Despite the title, gives some coverage (albeit brief) to Alan Turing’s own period at the NPL, including 1945 ACE proposals. Later areas of focus include production of the Pilot ACE and 1960s-70s work on packet-switched networking under Donald Davies, a field of new popular interest at the time of publication. There is also broad coverage of the NPL’s diverse involvement with computing in general. Mostly associated with standards-setting or protocols, this encompassed automatic translation, human-computer interaction and robotics.

Michael Woodger. “The history and present use of digital computers at the National Physical Laboratory”. Process Control and Automation (November 1958), 437-443.

A useful contemporary account.

University of Manchester

Brian Napper et al., Computer 50: the University of Manchester celebrates the birth of the modern computer. Online at <www.computer50.org>.

Created for the 1998 anniversary of the first successful run of the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (“Manchester Baby”). Includes information on personnel and equipment, plus details of the 1998 celebrations.

Simon Lavington, A History of Manchester Computers, second edition. Swindon: British Computer Society, 1998.

Brief survey covering the SSEM and Mark 1, Meg/Mercury, Transistor Computer, Muse/Atlas and MU5. Referenced. Concentrates on hardware development; also some discussion of automatic coding and institutional factors. Many images.

IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 15:3 (1993), special issue on “Computing at the University of Manchester.”

Similar format to the 1992 Cambridge collection. Pieces include John Pickstone and Geof Bowker on Manchester computing’s place in the industrial history of the area; Mary Croarken on the early Electro-Technics Department and the pre-history of Mancunian computers; and Simon Lavington’s technical account of computer architectures to 1975.

Martin Campbell-Kelly, “Programming the Mark I: Early Programming Activity at the University of Manchester”. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 2 (1980), 130-168.

Detailed technical study.

Jon Agar, “Digital Patina: texts, spirit and the first computer.” History and Technology 15 (1998) 121-135.

Discusses 1990s projects to rebuild or emulate different institutions’ ‘first’ computers, with a focus on the Manchester Baby/SSEM.

University of Cambridge

Maurice Wilkes, Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985.

Autobiography of the long-term director of the University of Cambridge Mathematical/Computer Laboratory, and lead developer of the EDSAC stored-program computer. Just over half the book deals with Wilkes’ early life and war service in air defence and at the Telecommunications Research Establishment. Tone is relatively non-technical, with some useful social context, particularly for the early years. Account of Wilkes’ computing career focuses on development of the EDSAC and successor machines, including programming, with significant coverage of American influences and collaborations. Relatively little on the 1960s/70s, or on Wilkes’ institutional roles at Cambridge and in the British Computer Society.

IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 14:4 (1992), special issue on “Computing at the University of Cambridge.”

Includes pieces by Mary Croarken on the creation of the Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory and the institutional formalisation of computer science at Cambridge, 1936-1949; Martin Campbell-Kelly on EDSAC programming (including discussion of a surviving early program tape); Joyce Wheeler on the various research communities which made use of EDSAC; David Wheeler on development from EDSAC to EDSAC 2; John Pinkerton on Cambridge-LEO relations; Maurice Wilkes on the EDSAC 2 hardware; ; Roger Needham on 1960s and later developments.

Birkbeck College, University of London

Andrew D Booth, “Computers in the University of London, 1945-1962), in Nicholas Metropolis, Jack Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota, eds, A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century. New York: Academic Press 1980, 551-561.

First-hand recollections. Very brief, but one of few surveys of this under-studied case. The chapter on “Pioneering small computers” in Lavington’s Early British Computers notes the Birkbeck research and its commercial connections with the British Tabulating Machine Company, which are briefly followed up from the BTM side in Campbell-Kelly’s ICL.

Early commercial computers

Under a sequence of mergers, most of Britain’s large commercial computing interests were consolidated, by 1968, into one national flagship corporation: International Computers Limited (ICL). Campbell-Kelly’s ICL, as noted above, principally traces two of its ancestors, BTM and Powers-Samas, their initial merger as ICT, and the final merger. Some accounts with ‘ICL’ in the title in fact address the whole field:

Martin Campbell-Kelly, “ICL and the evolution of the British mainframe”. Computer Journal 38 (1995), 400-412.

Overview of mainframe computing projects by ICL and its precursors, 1945 to the 1990s, chiefly in the context of competition from IBM.

Hamish Carmichael, ed., An ICL Anthology. Surbiton: Laidlaw Hicks, 1996.

Hamish Carmichael, ed., Another ICL Anthology. Surbiton: Laidlaw Hicks, 1998.

Two remarkable collections of anecdotes and reminiscences, supplied first-hand, by engineers, managers and others associated with ICL and its precursors (BTM, Powers-Samas, Ferranti, English Electric, LEO, Elliott, EMI, ICT), chiefly covering 1950s-early 90s. By nature undocumented, unreliable, often facetious and occasionally scatological; but provides insights into early computer life unlikely to be found anywhere else.


See also literature on the University of Manchester’s research computer projects, most of which were developed and/or commercialised in collaboration with Ferranti groups in the Manchester area.

Geoffrey Tweedale, “Marketing in the Second Industrial Revolution: a case study of the Ferranti computer group, 1949-63”. Business History 34 (1992), 96-127.

One of few accounts anywhere in the literature to focus on sales and marketing. Ferranti, briefly the dominant commercial computer producer in the 1950s, was the most sales-oriented of the British firms: Tweedale’s account gives useful comparisons with its competitors, and addresses its approaches to the commercial (via Pegasus) and scientific (via Atlas) markets. While accepting some “inappropriate sales strategies” and structural problems, Tweedale concludes that poor marketing was not a determining factor in Ferranti’s withdrawal from the market, or the eclipse of British hardware manufacture generally: US firms, “underwritten massively by the resources of the US government”, had an unassailable advantage.

Simon Lavington, The Pegasus Story: a history of a vintage British computer. London: Science Museum, 2000.

Brief survey of the development, features and marketing of the Pegasus machine, sold 1956-62, developed by Ferranti’s London Computer Laboratory group, including former Elliott Brothers engineers.

LEO (Lyons Electronic Office)

Peter J Bird, LEO, The First Business Computer. Wokingham: Hasler, 1994.

Including an opening chapter on the general history of Lyons. More detailed than most popular histories, but lightly referenced.

David Caminer, Aris, Hermon, Frank Land, User-Driven Innovation: The World’s First Business Computer. London: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Georgina Ferry, A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Teashops and the World's First Office Computer. London: Fourth Estate, 2003.

LEO story as popular history.

John Simmons, LEO and the Managers. London: MacDonald, 1962.

Accessible primary source-overview: Simmons’ personal description of LEO for a management audience.

Elliott Brothers and Elliott-Automation

Simon Lavington, Moving Targets: Elliott-Automation and the dawn of the computer age in Britain, 1947-67. London: Springer, forthcoming 2011.

Elliott-Automation of Borehamwood, north London, was briefly Britain’s highest-volume supplier of digital computers around 1961. This volume traces development at the firm and various successors on the same site (Marconi Elliott, GEC Computers) from 1945 to the late 1980s. Process control and avionics are important to the Elliott story, but data-processing, including production to NCR designs, is also covered.


Martin Campbell-Kelly, “ICL: taming the R&D beast.” Business and Economic History 22 (1993), 169-180.

Argues that the main intention behind the 1968 creation of ICL was an urge to maintain a world-class role for Britain in computer research and development. ICL, says Campbell-Kelly, became R&D-focused to a degree which continually threatened its commercial viability; research was also increasingly detached from potential markets. Reorganisation from 1982 saw drastic reorganisation of both R&D and manufacturing and a refocusing on industry-specific software, paving the way for the Fujitsu takeover of 1990.

Process control

Ross Hamilton, “Continuous path: the evolution of process control technologies in post-war Britain”. PhD thesis. Warwick: University of Warwick, 1997.

Hamilton’s focus on national minicomputer policy, which emerges here, is better addressed in his 1995 Business History article; the key value of the PhD thesis is in marking the evolutionary process by which small computers designed primarily for process control were adapted into “minicomputers”, ultimately understood as data-processing machines. Addresses machines developed by Ferranti, EMI, British Thomson Houston and the machine tool manufacturer Alfred Herbert, with some coverage of the cultural and political status of automation in the 1950s-60s.

Jonathan Aylen, “Megabytes for metals: development of computer applications in the iron and steel industry”. Ironmaking and Steelmaking 31:6 (2004) 465-478.

Innovation studies/technical history approach: international survey, largely Anglo-Welsh-American. 1960s case studies of General Electric digital computers at Llanwern and Port Talbot steelworks; Ferranti Argus used for furnace control, and English Electric KDN/KDFs to control rolling mill, at two sites in Rotherham. Includes useful table summarising all process control computers in use in 1970 across the national conglomerate, British Steel.


Ross Hamilton, “Despite best intentions: the evolution of the British minicomputer industry”, Business History 38 (1995), 81-104.

As for John Hendry in the earlier large-computing case, Hamilton focuses on the relationship between government initiatives to direct national technological strategy (here, the Ministry of Technology in the mid-1960s) and commercial providers: those discussed here, mostly quite briefly, are Ferranti, GEC, Plessey, Elliott Automation, Business Computers Limited (BCL), and the start-ups Computer Technology Limited (CTL) and Digico. Hamilton concludes that the eclipse of British minicomputing by DEC and other US producers, and consequent retreat of indigenous firms to niche supply arrangements, was probably inevitable: in permitting US suppliers to take a large share of the market, government met its higher priorities of computerising various industries to ensure competitiveness on other fronts.

Large-scale computing initiatives after 1970

Roger Needham, “Later developments at Cambridge: Titan, CAP, and the Cambridge Ring”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 14 (1992), 57-58.

Brief survey of work at the University of Cambridge from the 1960s until Maurice Wilkes’ 1980 retirement. The Titan was a reduced-scale development of the Ferranti Atlas; CAP, a 1970s capability-based computer; the Cambridge Ring, a networking system. Mechanical computer-aided design is also mentioned.

Brian Oakley and Kenneth Owen, Alvey: Britain’s Strategic Computing Initiative. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Insider account of the Alvey Programme (1983-87), intended to co-ordinate industrial and academic research efforts across fields including VLSI, artificial intelligence, human-computer interfacing and computer-aided design, in response to the Japanese “fifth generation” announcement. Oakley was director of the Programme; Owen its “editorial consultant”. Detailed discussion of the development of Alvey leads to an evaluation which positions it (questionably) as an important model for industrial-academic collaboration more generally.

Personal computing

Britain’s introduction to the personal computer, beginning around 1977-80 – a highly distinct episode from the well-trodden US case, and one with interesting political, social, economic and technical ramifications – is only now beginning to receive sustained historical investigation. Contemporary accounts often remain among the best starting points: these include the sociological accounts of Haddon and Skinner, and the very extensive (if sometimes hard to access) primary source base.

Leslie Haddon, “The roots and early history of the British home computer market: origins of the masculine micro”. PhD thesis. London: Imperial College, University of London, 1988.

Haddon locates the origins of the “home computer” in hobbyist culture, drawing on British and US cases, but devotes significant space to the transformation of the artefact, aimed initially at niche audiences (amateur coders, control interfacing, education), into a mass-market consumer phenomenon, used chiefly for playing software and lacking prevailing “technical” associations. The gender angle raised in the title addresses masculine tendencies both in early users’ clubs and in videogaming, the chief focus for software coverage. Uses an extensive range of interviews with both producers and users.

Leslie Haddon, “The home computer: the making of a consumer electronic.” Science as Culture 2 (1988) 7-51.

Extended article based on Haddon’s PhD thesis. Focuses on the shift in perceptions of the microcomputer, across the early 1980s, from the “self-referential” machine, explored as an introduction to the general possibilities of computing, to the “software player”, appealing to less technically literate audiences and used to run applications and (more often) games. Haddon takes the early Sinclair machines of 1980 and 81 to represent the first pole, and the mature software base of the Commodore 64 for the other.

David Skinner, “Technology, consumption and the future: the experience of home computing”. PhD thesis. Uxbridge: Brunel University, 1992.

Written concurrently with Haddon’s thesis, with some mutual discussion. Addresses similar cases, but devotes less space to microcomputing activities in practice, and more to rhetorical claims made for and around the new machines by a variety of interest groups. Particularly useful is the characterisation of a “millennial” position, attractive to many in government around 1980, which held that widespread public mastery of microprocessor technologies would inevitably lead to national salvation.

Thomas Lean, “The Making of the Micro: producers, mediators, users and the development of popular microcomputing in Britain (1980-1989)”. PhD thesis. Manchester: University of Manchester, 2008.

Similar case material to Haddon and Skinner’s theses, but with a theoretical focus on patterns of use and mediation. Includes interviews with corporate designers, and with end-users who became producers or co-producers in their own right.

Neil Selwyn, “Learning to love the micro: the discursive construction of ‘educational’ computing in the UK, 1979-89”. British Journal of Sociology of Education 23 (2002), 427-443.

Education, chiefly in the 4-18 age range, was a key component in the advent of personal computing in the UK, which deserves sustained historical treatment. Selwyn critiques the rhetoric of microcomputing as an intrinsically educational activity, widely articulated in the 1980s, with an eye on comparable post-2000s initiatives.

Hardware producers

Gordon Laing, Digital Retro. Lewes: Ilex, 2004.

Profiles over 40 microcomputers and gaming systems, dated 1975-1988, which were either developed in the UK or influential (not always for reasons intended by the manufacturers) on the UK market. Illustrated throughout with large, well-produced photographs (though no contemporary images or depictions of the machines in use). No source documentation. Text largely presents well-known corporate and technical histories in limited detail, but this is a helpful primer given the complexity of the British personal computer hardware market.

James Sumner, “Standards and Compatibility: the rise of the PC computing platform”. In James Sumner and Graeme Gooday, eds., “By Whose Standards?: Standardization, stability and uniformity in the history of information and electrical technologies” (History of Technology vol. 28). London: Continuum, 2008, 101-128.

Addresses 1980s IBM-compatibility and its discontents from a specifically British perspective, covering proprietary, compatible, and compromise systems promoted by Amstrad, Acorn, ACT/Apricot, Ferranti and others. Briefly addresses the shift to software-focused buying, and the potential significance of Digital Research in Europe.

Rodney Dale, The Sinclair Story. London: Duckworth 1985.

Of the many home-grown microcomputer firms which mushroomed over the period 1979-85, those headed by Clive Sinclair had the biggest impact on mass computing, and commanded the greatest public attention. This is an insider biography of Clive Sinclair, with extensive coverage of microcomputer production. Highly sympathetic treatment: fiscal and technical problems, painfully emphasised in other accounts, are muted or absent here. Concludes with the acquisition of Sinclair Research by Robert Maxwell’s media corporation, which in fact never took place (the deal fell through around the time of publication, and Sinclair’s computer interests were instead picked up by Amstrad).

Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy, Sinclair and the Sunrise Technology: the deconstruction of a myth. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986.

Contrasting sharply with Dale, this journalistic account presents the Sinclair phenomenon as an insubstantial public-relations construct, promoted as a salve for serious industrial decline by the Conservative administration to which Sinclair was publicly close. Not intended primarily as an attack on Sinclair, who nevertheless emerges as an idiosyncratic autocrat.

David Thomas, Alan Sugar: the Amstrad Story. London: Century 1990.

Popular biography, in the rags-to-riches mould, of the electronics entrepreneur whose cost-cutting, sales-focused tactics strongly influenced the otherwise declining personal computer market in the mid-1980s. Due attention is paid to the technical development and reception of the Amstrad firm’s computer models, which included the first IBM PC clone to be widely taken up in Britain and Europe.

John Harvey Jones with Anthea Masey, Troubleshooter. London: BBC Books, 1990, pp 71-98.

One of few published sources (outside the trade and business press) on Apricot Computers, a hardware producer focused firmly on the business market. Apricot made an awkward transition to IBM compatibility around 1986 and, by 1990, was one of the three surviving British-owned volume computer producers alongside ICL and Amstrad. Harvey-Jones’s is an impressionistic and personal account by an IT outsider, yet it illustrates perfectly the tensions between the logic of niche-focused vertical integration and the desperate unprofitability (in the UK) of hardware manufacture compared to software and support work.  

Paul Atkinson, “Man in a briefcase: the social construction of the laptop computer and the emergence of a type form.” Journal of Design History 18 (2005), 191-205.

Richly illustrated account of the design evolution of the laptop, tracing marketing appeals to cultural resonances of spy fiction. Focuses on the early clamshell-format GRiD Compass machine, developed by British designers from the late 1970s and marketed by the US-based startup, GRiD Systems, in 1982.

Software producers

Francis Spufford, “Chapter 3: The Universe in a Bottle” in Backroom Boys. London: Faber 2003, 71-119.

Software, though increasingly crucial in this period, has not so far served as the focus for much British literature of any description. One interesting exception is this journalistic account of the creation, distribution and marketing of the 1984 space-trader videogame, Elite. Convincingly evokes the air of uncertainty and opportunity surrounding the ‘bedroom coders’ of the period, and the social backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain. Elite was originally developed for the BBC Micro hardware produced by Sinclair’s niche-focused but long-lived competitor, Acorn. There are useful glimpses here of the vertical-integration assumptions of the period in the brief characterisation of Acorn’s software arm.