Sweet start for Irish computing


The Irish Sugar Company’s first computer in 1957 cost £33,000, when a clerk’s annual pay was £300, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

THEY ARE companies lost in the mists of computing history: the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM), Univac, Burroughs, Powers-Samas, Ferranti, Leo Computers, Marconi, Elliot, CDC, GEC. But they live on in the memory of Gordon Clarke, one of the first two representatives of BTM in Ireland in the 1950s.

BTM – which created the calculating machines called “bombes” that helped crack the Nazis’ Enigma machine, used to encrypt German wartime communications – eventually became part of ICT (International Computers and Tabulators), and then ICL (International Computers Limited), now part of Fujitsu.

Last week, Clarke, an Irish Computing Society fellow and medallist, recalled those early years of Irish computing in an evening lecture at the Dublin offices of Engineers Ireland, as part of its Heritage series.

Clarke had a key role in the arrival in Ireland of the computing age, as he became a BTM representative in 1958, just after BTM sold the first programmable computer in Ireland, the HEC 1201 (for Hollerith Electric Computer) to the Irish Sugar Company (Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann Teo) in 1957.

Other massive Hollerith machines went to the ESB, Bord na Móna, Aer Lingus, and parts of CIÉ, says Clarke, eventually totalling between 50 and 100 installations.

Clarke’s initial job was to look after the sugar company computer, and any other new computer installations as they came along. But those early machines were not stand-alone computers in the sense of a single, self-contained unit.

“It’s not easy to talk about the computer in isolation, because it was part of a whole system,” he says, including punchcard machines and sorters, printers, collators, card storage and tabulators – a whole range of “peripherals”, often the size of kitchen appliances, all with their own caretakers.

Compared to the typical desktop machine today, the HEC 1201 would seem impossibly slow, with barely any memory. It had a total of 20 bytes of memory, says Clarke. A typical desktop machine today measures memory in thousands of millions of bytes – gigabytes.

Where the HEC could perform about 800 calculations per second – astonishing at the time – computers now can execute many thousands of millions per second.

There was no such thing as a computing degree back then either, Clarke recalls. “One was trained within the company for each of the pieces of equipment as they came out.”

The computing world in Ireland and Britain was minuscule in the 1950s and 1960s, he recalls. “You got to know everyone who was in the computing industry. It was very small then.” Clarke’s direct employer was Calculating and Statistical Services (CSS) – the Dublin-based agent for BTM – founded by a woman, a Mrs Metcalfe, and located on Harcourt Street.

“I’d say the computing industry opened up the opportunities for women before many others,” he says. “There would have been women running the service companies at the time, and computing services for banking offered the most opportunity.”

A woman, Christine Willies of BTM, also wrote the first scientific computer program in Ireland around 1958, Clarke says.

The Irish Sugar Company bought its computer – which it stuck in an old seed store – in order to figure out payments to beet farmers (see panel). “It wasn’t given the best environment,” says Clarke.

Other large organisations followed in its computing footsteps, with the ESB purchasing an IBM mainframe around 1960 – the first Irish company to move to a computer with a newfangled invention called transistors inside. A range of companies received the next generation of BTM (now, ICT) machines in the 1960s: Jacobs Biscuits, PJ Carroll, Esso Ireland, Clondalkin Paper Mills, Sunbeam Wolsey, and government departments like the Revenue Commissioners.

BTM made much of its revenue from selling punchcards for those early computers, he says, much as many companies now make a good revenue stream selling ink cartridges for printers.

Aer Lingus also got its first computers in the 1960s – two IBM 360 machines running the IPARS (international programmable airline reservation system) software, developed with IBM and several other airlines. Before then, says Clarke, the company used the automated reservation system developed by computer company Bunker Ramos (later acquired by Honeywell), but it was “easy to overwrite” reservations using the old system, and passengers would arrive to find no record of their reservation.

Banks were the slowpokes in computing terms, only getting computers in the 1970s. Even in that decade they were still using ledger machines, Clarke recalls. AIB went to IBM, while Bank of Ireland opted for ICL computers.

Clarke went to work for Aer Lingus to manage its computers in 1969, and remained a systems engineer and manager with Cara Consulting and New Ireland Financial Services. “I always tried to stay involved with the technical side,” he says.

Solving a sticky problem

The Irish Sugar Company’s HEC 1201 (Hollerith Electronic Computer) was the very first stored program computer in Ireland – a computer with a bit of memory which didn’t need to be manually set each time to solve a problem.

Enormously expensive at the time – £33,000 in 1957, when the annual salary for a clerical operative was only £300 – the HEC 1201 was seen as a good investment for the Irish Sugar Company, which faced complex calculations every week for payments to sugar beet farmers at its four factories in Carlow, Mallow, Thurles and Tuam.

After sugar beet was offloaded and weighed, a sample prepared to take a sugar percentage reading, and the truck weighed, a payment to the farmer was made based on calculations involving the value of the beet, a deduction for a freight charge, a credit for a freight subsidy payment and a debit for an industry levy.

Rows of operators prepared punchcards with these figures on punchcard machines, for running the calculations on the computer. Data had to be verified by having a different operator re-enter it on another punchcard machine.

The program itself was read and stored by operators onto a magnetic drum – the computer’s memory.

Despite this labour-intensive form of early computing, such a machine did cut costs for very large companies like the Irish Sugar Company.