Despite the jeremiad feel of the year 1984, it marked a key milestone for BCS. This was when the royal charter, now hitting its 40th anniversary, was granted. Brian Runciman MBCS takes a look back at the process.

Royal charters began in the 13th century, and it only took 450 years for the Royal Society, chartered in 1662, to be recognised as the first learned society.

A mere 200 years later, professional bodies began to be formed to represent the new professions that arose after the industrial revolution. These wanted the recognition of a royal charter and to get it, they needed a constitution — and to do that, they needed to define their profession, using their occupational activity or particular expertise as a basis for doing so.

Of interest to BCS is the added concept of working in the public interest. This idea established a pattern for British professional bodies, so that working ‘in the public interest’ has now become a key test for a body seeking a royal charter.

A timeline of BCS’ royal charter

So to the 1980s. It was January 1981 that, at the request of the Silver Jubilee Co-ordinating Committee, the Secretary-General of BCS produced a paper outlining the significance of a royal charter. In February 1982 a progress report on the study was presented to Council, and it was agreed that firm proposals for a petition for a royal charter should be formulated as soon as practicable. In September of the same year Council decided that BCS’ Jubilee year was a suitable occasion to seek formal recognition for the status of the Society in Great Britain.

At an Extraordinary General Meeting in June 1983, 8,468 members voted in favour of a resolution to petition for a royal charter, with only 310 against. On 10 July 1984 the petition was read at Privy Council, and on 31 July 1984 the royal charter was granted. Witnessing by the monarch took place on 21 September 1984 and was announced, with an emphasis on the Society’s ‘role in promoting the science and technology of computing for the benefit of the public.’

March 1985 saw a special member's congress at the University of Reading. The Computer Bulletin for that year noted on the motivation for this: ‘We are now possessed of a royal charter and have an added dignity and standing in the eyes of the outside world. The step was taken because it was felt that chartered status would provide a springboard for a further forward surge in the Society's development. It is essential that we grasp fully the implications and potential of this new status for our Society. It is so important for these points to be grasped that this congress is arranged.’

Celebrating 40 years

In 2024, as we can see from the background above, there are a number of dates we could choose to celebrate the 40th anniversary of our royal charter. But really, any celebration should be around BCS’ continuing mandate to benefit the public.

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Maybe in 1984, when computing was only seeping into business — and still very much in the hands of the hobbyist — some envisaged the way IT would become woven into business and personal life. What was more difficult to foresee were such things as social media and the powerful organisations that oversee it, the utter transformation of business approaches, the dot-com booms and busts, the emerging technologies of blockchain, quantum computing and the myriad other emerged and emerging areas.

But, foreseen or unforeseen, all these things and many more in the 21st century demonstrate the correctness of those decisions taken not only in 1957 when BCS was set up, but in the 1980s when that public benefit was brought into focus through the pursuit of a royal charter.

In the near future we will publish a fuller account of the royal charter, it’s motivations and continued relevance.