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Early computing in Britain : Ferranti Ltd. and government funding, 1948 - 1958
Lavington S., Springer International Publishing, New York, NY, 2019. 392 pp.  Type: Book (978-3-030151-02-7)
Date Reviewed: Feb 24 2020

For Britain at least, this volume addresses how computing transitioned as a technological innovation to become a commercial product. The innovative manufacturing company Ferranti Ltd. produced the first commercially available computers, and implemented computing in nine end user organizations, from 1951 to 1957, through government intervention. In relating this story, the volume features engineers, programmers, and marketing staff who implemented the emerging transition of computing discovery to practical application. Helpfully, in the text, the transition is assisted with numerous illustrations and historical photographs, while the appendices are generously supplied with abundant technical details.

Literature on the history of computing rightfully points out the significance of the Ferranti Mark I as one of several international efforts competing for the claim of innovative computing. In this volume, the author identifies the importance of John von Neumann and Alan Turing in the formulation of “the Baby” prototype. To bring a computer to market entailed transitioning an academic tool to commercial viability; thus, the Mark I established productive, commercial resources. Ferranti needed to adapt to the commercial market while marketing competitive new products.

Commercial applications emerged with the purchase of a Ferranti Mark I by Shell’s Amsterdam laboratories. Ferranti computers were also implemented in defense applications, and the role of government was critical. Most notably, in the United Kingdom (UK), defense meant Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) Cheltenham. As Ferranti grew, the company installed computers in academic institutions that embraced computing, particularly in the UK, Canada, and Italy. The US aerospace industry applied computing to its efforts, as did the UK’s aerospace industry. Unfortunately for Ferranti, its initial success and growth was not sustainable, and the author chronicles the saga of the first and largest British computer manufacturer to its ultimate decline and inevitable bankruptcy.

Notably, the volume examines those who are neither at the top of innovation (policymakers, “government mandarins and board-level industrialists”) nor at the bottom (researchers and developers), but those in between: “a largely unsung and heterogeneous [group] of engineers, programmers, and marketing staff who [transform raw] ideas into [practical] products, features into benefits, and problems into solutions.” Between 1948 and 1958, Ferranti computers conquered computing outside of the US; and while Ferranti marketed to Canada, Holland, and Italy, it was IBM and UNIVAC that conquered the American market.

Marketing a new unwieldy tool was problematic. With brief calculations, clerks efficiently solved problems; but with long and complicated calculations, computers were inefficient. They “usually broke down before [finishing a] calculation”; their memory was inadequate to the task; and most troublesome was the fact that by the time a mathematician got the program correct, “it was usually quicker (and cheaper) to get the calculation done by clerks.” Computers were a hard sell.

Nonetheless, Cold War defense drove computing forward. The McMahon Act of 1946, which barred American cooperation in the development of nuclear weapons, isolated Britain. The Berlin airlift and radical changes in Soviet encryption methods characterized the 1948 inception of the Cold War. Furthermore, in 1949, the Yangtze Incident and the People’s Republic of China emerged. Then, in 1950, a hot war in Korea began. Great Britain responded to these alarming developments with two government agencies: the Ministry of Supply, and the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC). These agencies underwrote the expansion of Ferranti computing capabilities. Across the allied nations, computing emerged along the same general lines as concerns with Cold War defense. During 1946 to 1949, at the University of Manchester, “the Baby” was developed with government encouragement.

During the next period of development, “the transfer of technologies from academia to industry” occurred while the first cumbersome and difficult-to-maintain machines were built. Moreover, “computers were ... difficult to sell to business and commerce” due to their expense and the inability to easily apply to accounting and management punch-card equipment.

Although Ferranti was the “first and largest British computer manufacturer in the ... 1950s,” growth was not sustainable. Foreshadowed by “losing its mainframe computer department in 1963,” the company was finally extinct 30 years later. Neither the various iterations of the Mark I nor its successors, the Pegasus, Mercury, Orion, and Atlas, proved successful. The work not only features the innovation of Ferranti, but also why the company ultimately was not prosperous.

The distinctive value of this work is the panoramic exposition of Britain’s finest company that contributed to early computing, first-hand accounts from Ferranti employees, six detailed appendices, and original documents and photos from this formative period. The volume will appeal to those interested in early computing and computer history for technical material. However, the general reader will also enjoy the illustrations, as well as the personal anecdotes of early innovators. Lessons about computing development, company dynamics, and how to improve and market products while appealing to commercial applications are included.

Reviewer:  G. Mick Smith Review #: CR146903 (2008-0186)
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