Oral history of British science
Bird, Raymond (Part 1 of 15). An Oral History of British Science
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Computer Hardware; Electronics
Interviewee's home, Newbury
Bird, Raymond, 1923- (speaker, male)
Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)
Part 1: Born of middle class parents: father quantities surveyor, mother one of first female employees of National Savings. Mentions being brought up in Croydon and a village near Caterham. Remarks on starting council school then winning a scholarship to Caterham School, attended from 1934 to 1941. Further remarks on Caterham School, mentions joining RAF cadet corps. Mentions there being few university scholarships but how wartime expansion in radar and radio allowed him to spend two years at Woolwich Polytechnic, University of London, before becoming an RAF Technical Officer. Remarks on bomb damage to Woolwich Polytechnic, examinations and graduating in electrical engineering. Remarks on joining the RAF as a signals officer and serving in the UK and India. Short story about visiting Imperial College after VJ Day to inquire about doing a PhD, being demobbed early to start but being made to resit final year undergrad classes first, then being informed by Willis Jackson [WJ] that PhD now three not two years and instead opting to do an MSc on the absorption of ultra sonic waves in ascetic acid. Further remarks on similarity of MSc work, involving sound pulses, to work on radar. Remarks on leaving Imperial to work at GEC Research Laboratories Wembley and after 2 years being invited by [J.R.] Womersley [JRW] to do research on “counting with valves” for BTM [British Tabulating Machine Company]. [5:10] Remarks on joining BTM, aka Hollerith, at Letchworth, the commercial reasons for BTM's interest in computers and BTM's existing work on electronic multipliers and calculators under Billy Woodshill [BW]. Mentions touring other computer projects at Cambridge, Manchester, National Physical Laboratory [NPL], Malvern, with JRW. Comments on how Andrew Donald Booth [ADB] became involved with BTM. Short description of visiting ADB, who was building his computer in a barn at Fenny Compton. Further comments on producing a copy of ADB's machine at Letchworth and its differences from production engineered computers. Detailed remarks on ADB's ingenuity and economy in computer design. [9:30] Comments on interfacing the computer with a tabulator, the ingenuity of Hollerith engineers in adapting their machines and the need for an asynchronous tabulator, model E6-6, on a computer. Comments on taking the computer to the Business Efficiency Exhibition, demonstrating it with noughts and crosses, and Ronnie Michaelson's program to play an acol bridge hand. Remarks on evolving the computer to make it suitable for production and commercial programming. Further comments on Hollerith and the punched card business, mentions their rivals, Power Samas. Short description of the importance of pounds, shillings, and pence in protecting the British market from IBM and how this was calculated by computer for stock control and payroll calculations. [15:20] Detailed description of the adaptation of the computer for production, including remarks on the good quality of ADB's basic circuitry and a technical description of improving the function tree implementation. Comments on writing ideas for improvements in notebooks. Remarks on taking the production prototype machine to the Business Efficiency Exhibition, its small store size limiting it to engineering and scientific work, and producing a first batch of seven HEC2M computers. Lists the varied destinations of the HEC2M's, including RAE Boscombe Down, ESSO, AERE, GEC and one machine sent to the Indian Mathematical Bureau which was reputedly transferred into Russia. Describes improvements necessary to create a commercial rather than a scientific computer: printer, divider, card punch, larger drum store, the commercial success of the HEC4 with 120 delivered, and being proud of its low cost. Comments on the challenges of programming within the small memory stores of the early machines and the importance of payroll and stock control routines to business customers. Mentions the popularity of the HEC4 machines in ex-British colonies. Comments on the difficulties of servicing these computers for Hollerith's mechanically skilled staff and how the problem was initially alleviated by hiring ex-servicemen and radio hams before the training schools took over. Comments on John Wensley [JW] at GEC's Wembley research laboratories receiving a HEC computer, GEC's move into computing after loosing a contract for not having a computer, the formation of Computer Developments Limited [CDL] by BTM and GEC, and how RB joined CDL. Comments on [Dennis] Espley [DE], the manager at CDL and his successor, Peter Ellis [PE]. Mentions planning several projects at CDL before a plan for a transistor computer was put into practice. [27:30] Comments on the benefits of transistors. Describes the importance of the 'Hoover machine' - it beats, as it cleans, as it sweeps – a computer that can accept data input, process and output data simultaneously. Contrasts scientific and commercial computing, which had a slower pulse frequency rate. Describes storage and timing operations of the magnetic drum and optimum timing. [Short discussion of how interview should progress] [32:16] Remarks on being born in Addiscombe, a suburb of Croydon, where his parents had a terraced house near to a park and kindergarten which he attended. Mentions his parents buying house at Chaldon, Caterham, Surrey. Comments on remaining at school in Ashburton and his journey to school with his father and his long bus journey home aged 5. Mentions his parents allowed him to take risks and discusses having to change schools to Pearly Church of England School. Discusses favourite school subjects: Sciences, Mathematics, Geography, but not enjoying English and being bad an languages. Further remarks on his liking of science subjects, especially the practical side, because he preferred well defined subjects to those with an emotional or philosophical content. [38:02] Remarks on winning a scholarship to Caterham School and how his mother bought back issues of periodicals from Croydon Library. Short anecdote about how an article from 'Scientific American' on the locks of the Great Lakes helped him in his scholarship interview. Description of Caterham school, Congregational school originally in Lewisham, where he was a day pupil. Comments on being an atheist, not being baptised at birth, his parents' outlook on religion, and religion not being a major part of the school curriculum. Further remarks on school. [42:00] Comments on making friends but losing touch with them due to the war and not being a member of societies. Further comments on winning school scholarships. Short discussion on starting school, scuffles with other boys and friendships. Comments on school societies and joining the ATC [Air Training Corps]. Further comments on the ATC, mentions growing up near Kenley airfield. Further remarks on school: learning to drive a tractor, shooting rabbits at school and developing an adult attitude early. Comments on: learning to shoot as a child, having a relaxed home life, his father's gardening. Describes growing up in the country: gathering mushrooms, building camps, shooting, bird spotting and other childhood activities. Further comments on spotting wildlife. Describes being part of the village dramatic group and being a messenger for the ARP [Air Raid Precaution]. Comments on bombing: mentions oil bomb, German bombers dumping bombs over countryside, incendiary bombs falling on woodland, searching for interesting debris. Short story about finding an anti-aircraft parachute mine and detonating it in a bonfire. [56:30] Remarks on joining ARP and his duties. Describes helping the harvest while at school and watching the Battle of Britain above them, seeing Hurricanes take off from Kenley and climb to intercept German bombers. Remarks on RAF Kenley. Short story about a poison gas training course at the village hall. Comments on rationing. [1:00:00] Describes being a child during the Battle of Britain and having so sense of fear except during the night raids that followed the Battle. Describes seeing the horizon glowing red as London burned in the Blitz. Remarks on never worrying about Britain losing the war, mentions effect of Ministry of Information control of news. Comments on listening to Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on the radio and the great influence Winston Churchill had on morale. Short discussion on the effects of Churchill's speeches and the Ministry of Information news. [1:04:40] Comments on listening to the radio, its middle class nature and how his mother listened to French radio to help her learn French. Story about his father building a radio loudspeaker, around 1936, decorated with a swastika for good luck. Describes other technologies present in his house: home built radios, gas fridge and Beatty washing machine, and how they were often bought second hand. Remarks on cultivating food: gleaning wheat from harvesters to feed chickens and nut collecting. [1:09:00] Short discussion of how his forward looking mother would buy household technology at auction sales and his father would maintain it. Description of an American fitted kitchen unit bought by his mother.
Interview with electrical engineer and computer designer Dr Raymond Bird.