Computerese - not a programming language (1962)

The Institute’s member magazine was called Computer Bulletin (before ITNOW came in). I have been looking back at it - specifically 50 years back to 1962. What do I find? Eight pages of adverts before the articles begin - then another 9 pages at the end! Immediately I am jealous... but no matter, what lessons do we learn from our computing grandfathers?

Well, racism was more common then ad from a company providing ancillary tabulating equipment claimed that it could ‘keep tabs on every junk in the China Seas’ (complete with racially insensitive line drawing) - in the shape of a forms detacher to chop up the output of a printer. Apparently this would bring a flicker of interest ‘even to the inscrutable face of the Oriental.’

It was news when someone bought something

Battersea College of Technology bought a Ferranti SIRIUS computer, the Max Planck Institute in Munich bought an IBM 7090, and many other purchases of expensive equipment were viewed as newsworthy. But, most interestingly, the BBC bought its own computer for the first time to do audience research statistics. The venerable institution got a National-Elliott 803 and BCS informs us that ‘many of the programs for the machine are being written by the audience research specialists and engineers who are directly concerned with making use of the results.’ Which sounds at once admiral and suspicious to 21st century ears... no chance of gaming the system there!

There’s always been debate...

‘Document handling and recognition’ was an article written by a member of the BCS Committee on Document Handling and Character Recognition. In a disclaimer at the outset of the piece it said that it ‘reviews the work of the Committee since it’s inception but it should be understood that it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of every member...’ Read between the lines when handling this document and recognising the characters.

FACT? Or not?

Honeywell Electronic Data Processing ran a full page ad for their ‘plain English, ungarnished, easier to follow, faster to work’ computer programme FACT. ‘You understand, machine understands’ claims the ad, heralding a future that even Siri has yet to see truly fulfilled (Note. Of course in 1962 it wasn’t voice activated, this is just a weak joke).

Interestingly if you toddle over to Wikipedia they even question whether it was, in fact, (see what I did there?) released. Actually it acknowledges that, ‘FACT was implemented - it was being used by Department of Defence (Australia) in the 1960s and early 1970s.’ So at least it wasn’t put under much pressure.

Additionally COBOL is called the Esperanto of automatic programming aids. Which may explain both their fates.

The ad was titled ‘Write English instead of Computerese,’ hence this post’s title.

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    Terry Coles wrote on 7th Sep 2012

    The National-Elliott 803 computer was an extremely good and versatile computer in its day. In 1961 I installed one at Northamptonshire County Council. Its main use was for accounting and payroll but systems for traffic surveys and architectural projects were also implemented. The 803 was used widely in commerce.

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  • 2
    Noel Wilson wrote on 7th Sep 2012

    My first experience was with an '803' and Algol 60

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  • 3
    Christine Arrowsmith wrote on 10th Sep 2012

    In 1959 or 1960 I borrowed a book from the Children's Reference section of the local Public Library. I was attracted by the word computer as I had moved from children's classics to science fiction and computers were in sci-fi. I am sure the book was called "The History of Computers" but cannot prove it. The early chapters looks at counting methods in pre-history, the early forms of the abacus, through to Charles Baggage.
    The last chapter told the story of the development of the Lyon's Electronic Office (LEO) and committedd me to a career in computing, long before anyone knew what I was talking about!

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  • 4
    Frank Beck wrote on 19th Feb 2013

    I first programmed the Hollerith HEC2 computer at the GEC in 1955.
    It had 2048 bytes of memory, and was programmed in absolute binary. There was no assembler.

    I published an article on Fourier Analysis using this machine in vol1 no2 of the Computer Journal.

    Can anyone alive beat this?

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About the author

Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

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February 2018