Oral history of British science

Tootill, Geoff (Part 8 of 12). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Computer Hardware; Electronics

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Wokingham

  • Interviewees

    Tootill, Geoff, 1922- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 8: Remarks on difference between experiences of Cambridge and Manchester Universities. Remarks on: similarity of work at Manchester to work at TRE [Telecommunications Research Establishment], how TK and he did not have their own offices, changes between Manchester University then and now. Remarks on computer laboratory at Manchester, working hard, catching up on paperwork at home and how TK did his paperwork on train. [3:28] Remarks on not receiving technical training at TRE and having a good working knowledge of electronics already due to experiences building wireless sets and amplifiers. Mentions principle tools used at TRE: soldering iron, wiring pliers, side cutters. Remarks on two week course on arrival at TRE being largely about learning secret acronyms and jargon. [06:10] Description of the 'Cake Stand' connection between fixed and moving parts of antenna on CGI [Ground Controlled Interceptor] and Chain radar stations. Remarks on being taken to visit Chain sites and fighter control rooms during training. [09:52] Remarks on contact with designers of radar equipment, including his group leader William E.[Bill] Burcham who helped design A.I. Mark 8, but never questioning designers. Remarks on contact with group leader, headquarters, Air Ministry and RAF stations in the course of making modifications. Remarks on: not having problems with interdepartmental politics and how the various organisations were well structured and compartmentalised, to avoid problems and due to technical specialisation. Mentions FCW's group role in passing round technical ideas. [14:39] Remarks on FCW and TK not liking working with AT, and GT later suspecting this was because they knew he was homosexual, which GT learned of at the time of AT's suicide. Remarks on considering a PhD but being unable to find funding. Remarks on Military College of Science: its affiliate status to University of London, GT being younger than other lecturers and concerned with his authority, on his technical expertise being recognised, his supervisor being a servo mechanism expert, on teaching analogue and digital computing. [18:26] Comments on analogue computing: carrying out a survey of analogue computers, the problems of multiplication in analogue computers compared to the accuracy of other operations such as addition and integration. Description of designing a better analogue multiplication unit, but it of being little practical use as digital multiplication was superior. Short anecdote about FCW's opinions regarding the superior accuracy of digital multiplication. [23:33] Remarks about learning basics about analogue computing at TRE, finding a report on analogue multiplication at TRE which he used at the Military College of Science. Comments on digital computing's superiority over analogue. [26:58] Short Description of Military College of Science: based at manor house with addition of Sandhurst blocks. Remarks on courses taught at Shrivenham, physics, chemistry and their military application. Comments on being recruited to Shrivenham, mentions TRE concert party experience giving him the confidence to lecture and do well in the interview. Remarks on the College's dire need for a computer expert but finding digital computing a simple concept himself. Mentions promotion from experimental officer class to scientific officer class and the value of his MSc. [31:07] Remarks on not being restricted by Official Secrets Act at Shrivenham.[32:16] Short story about GT's editor father's response to GT's report for Ferranti describing the design for the Ferranti Mark 1 computer, and his criticism of GT's use of the passive voice. Further comments on his mother being proud of his progress. [35:56] Remarks on: GT's wife going back to work at TRE after their marriage, her staying at Malvern until GT's position in Manchester was confirmed and then moving to Oldham, where they lived at GT's parents. Short story about his wife's reaction to the pollution in Oldham. [38:30] Remarks on Oldham in the late 1940s: small town, rows of council houses without inside toilets. Further remarks on conditions in housing. Comments on his parents large detached house, with scullery and inside bathroom with hot and cold water. Remarks on being accustomed to indoor bathroom. [41:05] Comments on his parents being upper middle class, his father's quite prestigious position within the Cooperative Wholesale Society. Remarks on father obtaining refurbished furniture for GT when he married. Remarks on Coop dividend and how it was paid using climax cheques, his father's status within the cooperative. [44:28] Remarks on being separated from his wife while at Manchester but having an interesting job to keep him busy, going into the laboratory on Saturdays, which TK didn't do as he commuted from Dewsbury. Remarks on the design work on the computer: producing a logical circuit diagram, which Norman the wireman would turn into a piece of equipment, the role of the drawing office in clearing up circuit designs. Mentions work of Ferranti in turning logical design into a computer. [47:11] Detailed discussion of the work of the workshop and the wireman in producing components for the computer and how few other departments had need of specialised circuit construction. Comments on Ida Fitzgerald, Norman's faster working replacement, and her technical training. [52:19] Further comments on it being unusual that their wireman was a women, difficulties accommodating female staff, war breaking down barriers. [54:07] Remarks on Manchester University being conservative. Mention not noticing any particular political culture at the university or at home. Comments on his father's work for the Co-operative press, how it was a respectable establishment in spite of it's nominally socialist nature, and the hidden politics of the professional editor. Remarks on his father being a Liberal as a compromise as he couldn't bring himself to vote Labour. [56:58] Short story about telling his parents they were going to be grandparents. Remarks on the relationship between GT's mother and wife, his mother's teacher nature, lodging with his parents before lodging in his auntie's house while she was on a long holiday. [1:00:05] Remarks on his children: Peter born 1948, Colin 1950, Steve 1953. Mentions on marrying in 1947 at Malvern church, on Peter's birth in Worcester, on being busy at work and Pam understanding as it meant GT would have a better future. Remarks on becoming a father: becoming more responsible, spending more carefully, salary mounting up before he was married, [short discussion of refreshments] [1:04:22] costs of raising a child and living. [1:05:26] Comments on the National Health Service [NHS] and this relieving him of the worry of medical costs, mentions recent Andrew Marr television series. [1:07:36] Discusses his children and their businesses: Peter, bright and reserved, ran a bulletin board; Colin, outgoing, worked as a sticky label salesman before starting his own business, now in Toronto; Steve, who worked for an Australian firm before setting up a business cleaning address lists of duplications for mail order firms. Further comments on the process of cleaning address lists and how GT wrote software to standardise surnames by producing phonetic versions after his retirement in 1982. [1:15:29] Short anecdote about accidentally ejecting Colin from his pushchair. Remarks on wanting children to find their own way in the world. [17:19] Comments on moving to Shrivenham and living in married soldiers' quarters. Remarks on washing machine with mangle and its use in washing nappies, GT doing the DIY in the home, GT's salary leaving them quite well off, being assigned a larger married officer quarters. Comments on the poor insulation and heating arrangements in his home. [1:23:50] Mentions meeting wife at TRE concert party and joining dramatic society at Shrivenham. Further comments on amateur dramatics and sketches at TRE and Shrivenham, performing Arsenic and Old Lace. Remarks on features of American accent. [1:28:12] Comments on: proposing a terminology committee to president of International Federation for Information Processing [IFIP], the use of Holmstrom Principle for multilingual vocabulary, the difficulties of dealing with software terminology in different languages. Description of the use of project control software, which turned into the just in time system. Further remarks on just in time system and why it worked better in Japan than Britain. Comments on use of project control software in writing definitions for a vocabulary and avoiding circular definitions. Remarks on becoming chairman of terminology committee of IFIP and Isaac Auerbach's role in this. [1:34:23] Remarks on the British Computer Society: founder but did left when he moved to Holland. Further remarks on work for the IFIP terminology committee, writing definitions in English, using French as specimen foreign language for translating definitions. [1:39:06] Remarks on meeting where they decided to set up the British Computer Society, its current state, and the Computer Conservation Society. Further comments on: inaugural meeting and purpose of the BCS, including spreading information amongst computer installation managers and research and development, comparative situation in America. Remarks material published in BCS journal. [1:42:08] Comments on: writing a Pelican book, published by Penguin, on analogue and digital computers with SH, to fill a market need for an accessible book on computers as their use expanded, its translation, working on the proofs when GT moved to Holland. Remarks on: experience teaching at Shrivenham being useful in writing the book; [1:47:23] considerations while writing of how computers worked, what they could be used for, what a user would need to know. [1:48:10] Remarks on: dealing with C.P. Snow's organisation during the war, 'The Two Cultures', on soft and hard subject options at universities, relatives choice of a degree in English literature. Mentions thinking of officers at the College of Science as an audience for his book. Remarks on levels of technical knowledge of military officers and lecture content at Shrivenham, teaching analogue multipliers, their servo mechanisms, potentiometers and limitations. [1:54:17] Comments on teaching at Shrivenham: giving lectures, student laboratories, designing experiments, contributing to the guided weapons course, putting on guided weapons course for civilian developers, differences between military and civilian students, mainly teaching army officers, principally REME, signals corps and artillery. Remarks on: military desire for officers to understand computing devices, military contributions to research and development, RAF officers at TRE, good relations with military who wanted to learn, being in the signals group of the Senior Training Corps. [2:01:15] Comments on lecturing at Shrivenham: anecdote about a pupil, Peter Lodge, asking questions to slow a lecture down so they could write more notes; getting on well with students, pupils being older than him, end of course parties; short anecdote on an end of course dinner caricature of GT, presenting him as leading his pupils two by two onto an ark, a reference to binary notation. [02:05:54] Remarks on: student laboratories, building a uni-selector and relay based computing device to demonstrate binary addition to students, based on a design used by the Tote, not having a computer to teach with, the nature of the contemporary computer. Further comments on the relay device he used to demonstrate computing, its binary adder subtracter, use for teaching programming, problems caused by poor quality of relay switches. [02:10:08] Mentions referring to this on the occasion of the the 50th anniversary of the Manchester computer. Remarks on difficulties of teaching digital computing without a computer, teaching software at Shrivenham with the aid of example program from his MSc thesis, breaking cardinal rules of programming by jumping into the middle of a loop and using constant number as an instruction. Further remarks on ground rules of programming and working in the constraints of small memory store. [2:15:23] Remarks on keeping up with computer developments through publications such as those of the BCS and 'Nature', and keeping his professional knowledge up to date through reading and having ideas himself. Further remarks on separation of data and instructions in a computer. [2:18:45] Comments on how being chair of the BCS terminology committee led him to become chair of the IFIP terminology committee. Mentions father's influence on his interest in terminology. Description of the BCS and IFIP terminology committees' work on computing vocabulary. Anecdote about one of the French members of the IFIP committee leaving a sheet behind after a meeting scoring the intelligibility of the other members, with Ian Gould the secretary, having marks for with and without pipe. [02:23:20] Further remarks on the working of the committees: homework, discussing definitions, coming to the conclusion that formal definitions were useless without real examples. Remarks on IFIP vocabulary being adapted by different countries, but how the British Standards Institution took out the examples rendering it less useful. Remarks on returning to the UK for a headquarters job and producing a vocabulary of process control. Remarks on use of vocabularies as British standards. [02:28:06] Remarks on colleagues at Shrivenham. Remarks on teaching. Short anecdote on students' end of course projects. Lists other topics on curriculum: heat engines, mechanical engineering, radar, radio. [02:31:56] Further remarks on technical staff course, guided weapons courses and young officer's course. Remarks on how Shrivenham functioned as college of University of London and being too busy to do a PhD. Mentions technical staff course being his main preoccupation, advent of guided weapons course and being at Shrivenham for six years. Remarks on: doing some private coaching at Manchester; enjoying his work at Shrivenham but not enjoying his later headquarters posting as he missed development work; enjoying Shrivenham, but finding social life at TRE better as it was such an interesting group of people.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Geoff Tootill, computer engineer who was part of the team that built Baby, the world's first stored program computer.

  • Related transcripts

    Geoff Tootill interviewed by Tom Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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