School of Computing

News Item

Fifty years on

Five alumni from the postgraduate class of 1967 recently reconvened to see how their course and the University have changed.

Fifty years ago, on 2 October 1967, nine young men, who had recently graduated from universities around the country, gathered in Newcastle to start postgraduate courses in what was then the Computing Laboratory.  The courses were the forerunners of the current MSc and Diploma courses in Computing Science, though the degree title then referred to “Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing”. Last week five of these young men returned to Newcastle to reminisce in the School of Computing, now based in the Urban Sciences Building. This is their account of their time in Newcastle and their reunion:

Claremont Tower opened in September 1967, a few weeks before our arrival. We were welcomed and given a short introductory talk by the Director, Professor  Ewan Page, in the basement room that was to become our home for the year, and then two tests, one of our mathematical abilities, and the second a programming aptitude test then used by a major computing company to assess its applicants. We were never told how well we did, though I do know that the Computing Lab dropped the test a few years later when analysis suggested that the results had little correlation with its own view of our apparent competence. And since all of us have gone on to have successful computing-related careers in academia, major industry or local government, ranging from advising the US government on the Millennium bug to contributing to the search for the Higgs boson, perhaps the Lab got it right!

We were joined for many of our lectures by the Laboratory’s first undergraduates - five men and one woman - who had completed the first year of a degree in mathematics and then opted to transfer to the new BSc in Computing Science. Some, though not all of us, had previously written some computer programs, either in Fortran or in Atlas Autocode. In Newcastle we were taught to program in Algol 60 for the English Electric KDF9, preparing programs on paper tape. With careful timing it was sometimes possible to get two runs of the program in a day, so we learned to make good use of the error detection facilities of the Whetstone Algol (WALGOL) compiler developed by Brian Randell, who joined the Lab some two years later, and his collaborator Lawford Russell. Some of the other topics on our course - computer architecture or techniques for sorting and searching data - will be familiar to more recent  students, but many now seem more appropriate in mathematics and engineering degree programmes, especially numerical methods for linear algebra, integration or differential equations. One of the lessons of long careers in Computing is that one has to be able to adapt and learn new skills.

An early highlight of the reunion was the opportunity to see much of the collection of historic computing artefacts accumulated by the late Roger Broughton, formerly the Computing Laboratory operations supervisor, including the control panel for the IBM 360 Model 67, which had just arrived when we did, and which we were to use later in the year. It is a measure of the development of computers to note that the 360/67, with one quarter of a megabyte of memory weighing around a quarter of a ton and substantially less power than a modern mobile phone, had cost about £1Million, and that its arrival marked the first time that the University had had two computers in operation at the same time!

Professor John Fitzgerald, the present Head of School, welcomed us to Computing’s new home in the Urban Sciences Building, together with two retired members of academic staff who had taught us fifty years ago and who are still locally based (Ken Wright and Mike Elphick). Indeed Professor Page had apologised for being unable to join us, having an engagement in Reading. John gave us an overview of the development of the building, current teaching and research in the school, and Computing’s place in the University strategy for Science Central. We toured the building in John’s company and were enormously impressed by the building and the thought that had gone into making it a wonderful new home, and into creating opportunities for future research topics base around the Urban Sciences theme.  We were enormously privileged to have this opportunity to see our former department’s new home so soon after its occupation, and to have the benefit of John’s insight into the future of Computing in Newcastle.

We also managed to take in the Martin Luther King exhibition in the library, though we were completely unaware at the time that the University had conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Civil Laws on Dr King within a few weeks of our arrival in the city. And with the aid of a City Bus Tour we explored the many changes in the city in the last fifty years, especially around the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside.

And there were a couple of enjoyable meals, one in Northern Stage and one on the Quayside where the visitors were fortunate enough to see the Gateshead Millennium Bridge open, though an attempt to re-visit the Students’ Union Bar was thwarted by preparations for the arrival of new students. Altogether a happy couple of days: friends for a year, friends for fifty years!

Computing reunion
Standing:David Rischmiller, Philip Turner, Howard Bott, David Appleton, John Fitzgerald. Seated:Michael Elphick, John Lloyd, Kenneth Wright.

published on: 11 October 2017