Automatic Relay Calculator - Department of Computer Science and

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Automatic Relay Calculator - Department of Computer Science and
School of Computer Science & Information Systems
A Short History
Greetings from our founders, Andrew and Kathleen Booth
Kathleen and I send our greetings and best wishes to the students and
Faculty of the Department of Computer Science at Birkbeck on the 50th
anniversary of the foundation of the department in 1957. We wish that we
could be with you but constraints of age and health make this impossible.
You may like to know that the original department was responsible for
building one of the first operational computers in the World, the APEXC
and its successors, the M series and the commercial version the HEC
machines sold by the then ICT of which over 120 were produced.
Having produced the machines we needed teaching material and so
produced the first systematic books on modern numerical analysis,
programming and computer design.
On the research side we started research on Machine Translation, on thin
film storage technology for digital storage, and magnetic drum and disc
storage. Braille transcription, now touted as a recent IBM invention was
actually the work of one of our Ph.D. students. And genetic, self
modifying programs were also invented here.
These are only a few of our original activities and you are the carriers of a
distinguished origin.
Kathleen and I (and the late Dr. J.C. Jennings the other member of the
original faculty) send you our best wishes for the future. I do not expect
to be with you in body in 2058 but I shall be with you in spirit.
Andrew & Kathleen Booth
Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
April 2008
1. Introduction
Birkbeck’s historic mission of making university education available to the working
people of London has created a unique institution. It attracts the fierce affection of
students and staff alike. The many students who have subsequently joined the academic
staff bear witness to its unique appeal. This short history records the story of the
contribution of one department to, firstly, the life of the College, secondly, to the
development of computing technology and, finally, to the computer industry.
The story starts with two men – firstly, J D Bernal one of the intellectual giants of the
20th century returning from government service in World War II and planning a new
crystallography laboratory and, secondly, Andrew D Booth who had just gained a PhD
studying the crystal structure of explosives and already experimenting with the
automation of the large sets of calculations needed to determine crystal structures from
X-ray images. By happy coincidence their paths crossed and J D Bernal invited
Andrew Booth to join him at Birkbeck. Over the next 17 years Andrew Booth devoted
his considerable energy to building numerous computers and experimenting with a
large number of different applications
Fifty years ago he decided that this technology had reached a maturity which justified
setting up a Postgraduate Diploma programme. Courses at Birkbeck could only be
taught by a department and so October 1957 saw the establishment of a Department of
Numerical Automation. From the beginning, computing courses have had a widespread
appeal for Birkbeck students. Demand seems to fluctuate in roughly ten year cycles.
Shortly after the millennium this reached an unsustainable peak with the dot.com boom
and, worldwide, has tumbled further and faster in reaction although this year’s
recruitment suggests we may have finally passed the bottom of the cycle.
Birkbeck has always had to take care to live within its means. Its unique makeup leaves
it exposed to the winds of maverick politicians and the law of unintended
consequences. Small financial changes for most universities can seriously damage
Birkbeck’s finances. Consequently, the College has adopted Micawber style financial
strategies – with successive Finance Directors usually managing, even in very
unpromising years, to have the metaphorical sixpence left at the year’s end!
So throughout the story that follows there are recurring references to space and
resource limitations. Despite these periodic inconveniences and uncertainties, the
School has continued to fulfil its prime mission of providing research led higher
education. The enduring affection for Birkbeck of students and staff, not least in this
School, are a testimony to the continuing value of our mission.
2. Early Years
The origins of computing at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of Andrew
Booth and his boss J D Bernal 1 , the great crystallographer. Returning to Birkbeck at the
end of WW2, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He
appointed four assistants, one of whom was to lead on mathematical methods. He
appointed Andrew Booth who had completed a PhD on crystal structures of explosives
at Birmingham in 1944. His father was an engineer and part time inventor.
Consequently it was perhaps not surprising that Andrew Booth developed devices to
relieve crystallographers of the “tyranny of mathematics”. He started by building
analogue devices and shortly after his arrival at Birkbeck he started to build his first
electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC), Figure 1. Due
to a lack of space in Birkbeck the machine was built at the British Rubber Producers
Research Association in Welwyn Garden City where he had been briefly employed
between Birmingham and Birkbeck.
Figure 1 Kathleen Britten, Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth
working on ARC in December 1946
In 1946 Bernal obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for Andrew Booth to
visit US researchers working on computers. Andrew Booth reported that only von
Neumann (a friend of Bernal) at Princeton gave him any time.
In 1947 Booth undertook a 6 month US tour based at Princeton with von Neumann and
accompanied by Katherine Britten who was soon to become his wife. This led to a
redesign of the original ARC with a “von Neumann” architecture (sometimes referred
to as ARC2). Andrew and Kathleen Booth set out the technological options for each of
the components of a computer using a “von Neumann” architecture. This paper 2
circulated among the growing community of computer pioneers and they produced a
second edition.
J D Bernal - The Sage of Science by Andrew Brown, OUP, 2005, ISBN 0 19 851544 8
A D Booth & K H V Britten, General Considerations in the Design of an All Purpose Electronic Digital
Computer, (2nd edition), August 1947, Birkbeck College, London
Key to a “von Neumann” architecture was the memory. Andrew Booth was interested
in building a low cost computer and so he started experimenting with magnetic oxide
coated paper discs as then used in the USA for recording simple voice messages.
However, it proved impossible to keep the disc flat when rotating at speed and so he
moved on to using nickel coated drums which were built by his father. Thus it was that
Andrew Booth built the world’s first rotating store albeit a drum rather than the now
ubiquitous disc. This is now on display in the Science Museum, London, see Figure 2.
Figure 2 Booth's First Drum
Photo Courtesy of NMSI. London
During 1947 Andrew Booth met with Warren Weaver, Natural Sciences Division
Director, Rockefeller Foundation, who had funded the trip. Andrew Booth asked if the
Foundation would fund a computer for London University. Weaver said that the
Foundation could not fund a computer for mathematical calculations but that he had
begun to think about using a computer to carry out natural language translation and that
the Foundation probably could fund a computer for research in that area. Thus
Birkbeck became for the next fifteen years a leading centre for natural language
research. Initially the tiny memory on computers meant it was very difficult to do any
serious processing but Andrew Booth and his research students developed techniques
for parsing text and also for building dictionaries. Numerous papers and several books
were published.
These events gave rise to the first official reference to computing at Birkbeck, in the
1947-8 College Annual Report, which says:
An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will
serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a
means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost
crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve. A temporary building to house it is to
be erected on the site of a neighbouring static water tank, and generous gifts of parts and money
have been received from various sources, including the Rockefeller Foundation, New York.
Notwithstanding the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of a machine expressly for
natural language processing, readers will note the emphasis here on the “unfunded”
mathematical calculations although, in fairness, natural language processing was to
feature in later years.
Andrew Booth, even in the days of cumbersome early machines, wrote about making
computers available as widely as possible. Nonetheless the following extract from the
College report for 1949-50 under the unpromising heading of “Desk Calculating
Machines” seems well ahead of its time:
The Committee of the Privy Council for Scientific and Industrial Research have made a grant
for a programme of research on desk calculating machines to be carried out over the next two to
three years on behalf of the National Physical Laboratory by the Electronic Computer
Laboratory at Torrington Square.
This project seems to have ended prematurely without a prototype being built but a
copy of Andrew Booth’s report from 1950 has recently been found in the Science
Museum archives 3 . In it Andrew Booth evaluates the technical options for putting
computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.
Around 1948/49, Andrew Booth redesigned the ARC2 as an entirely electronic
machine which he called Simple Electronic Computer (SEC). This was built by
Norman Kitz (formerly Norbert Kitz), see Figure 3, and is written up in his 1951 MSc
(Eng) dissertation 4 . This appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck
and hence our earliest alumnus.
Figure 3 Norman Kitz working on SEC, December 1949
DEC – Desk Electronic Computer by A D Booth, 1950, unpublished report to DSIR, Science Museum
A Discussion of Automatic Digital High-Speed Calculating Machines with special reference to SEC –
A Simple Electronic Computer, MSc (Eng) thesis by N Kitz, 1951
An interesting historical footnote is that Norman Kitz left Birkbeck to work for English
Electric at NPL on the DEUCE computer. From there he moved to Bell Punch and
designed the world’s first electronic desktop calculator, called ANITA. So although
Andrew Booth never built a desktop calculator at Birkbeck, possibly he inspired one of
his students to do so.
Andrew Booth moved swiftly on to create his best known computers, the All-Purpose
Electronic Computers (APEC). The 1951/52 College Annual Report proudly records
that “The APEXC calculator operated successfully for the first time on 2nd May 1952”.
A year later the 1952/3 Report records that:
The second digital computer APEXC [the first was SEC] has been completed and is in use. It
has shown the expected speed of about several hundred times as fast as mechanical methods but
has exceeded expectation in its reliability and freedom from breakdown. An improved model is
almost complete and will take its place as soon as the first is sent to its owners, the British
Rayon Research Association.
The Annual Reports are slightly confused with regard to the computers’ names. It is
possible the names changed over time. Andrew Booth subsequently refers to the Rayon
Research machine as APE(R)C – R for Rayon - and the later APE(X)C – X for X-ray was the Birkbeck crystallographers machine, see Figure 4.
Figure 4 APE(X)C Computer in 1956
Accommodation at Birkbeck was at a premium and so Andrew Booth built his
APE(R)C and probably others in a barn in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire where his
father lived.
It was to this barn in March 1951 that a three man team led by Dr Raymond “Dickie”
Bird 5 from British Tabulating Machines (BTM) came to visit. BTM were the UK’s
leading supplier of punch card systems and their management had decided that they
needed a small computer to improve the calculating power of their tabulators,
specifically to add sterling currency capability.
The Design of an Electronic Digital Computing System, PhD thesis, R Bird, Birkbeck College, London
BTM copied Andrew Booth’s circuitry and after they returned to BTM’s factory at
Letchworth they added extra I/O interfaces and named the resulting computer the
Hollerith Electronic Computer (HEC), see Figure 5. This prototype computer is one of
the world’s earliest surviving electronic computers, and unlike so many early machines
which were dismantled when no longer needed, is now in store in the Birmingham
Museum together with a unique electro-mechanical drum and two early electronic
drums all designed by Andrew Booth.
Figure 5 BTM HEC 1 Prototype in store at the Birmingham Museum
BTM moved ahead rapidly getting HEC1 to work by the end of 1951. BTM
management decreed that the HEC would go to the Business Efficiency Exhibition in
1953 and so a new machine (HEC2) had to be built contained in a smart metal cabinet.
Eight similar machines were sold as the HEC2M mainly for technical applications. The
successor was the HEC4 which was a data processing machine of which about 100
were sold in the UK and abroad. At the end of the 1950s this was the UK’s best selling
computer by volume. After BTM merged with Powers SAMAS to form ICT the HEC4
became the ICT 1200 range, see Figure 6.
Over the next few years the Department grew and there was a steady flow of journal
and conference papers and notably a series of books, several going into more than one
edition. One notable landmark was Kathleen Booth’s book on programming the APEC
computers 6 .
Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator by K H V Booth, Butterworths, London, 1958.
Figure 6 ICT 1201 of 1956
This was an early book on programming and unusual in
did most of the programming while Andrew Booth built
were published on text processing including creating
language translation. On November 11th 1955 the
demonstration of machine translation, see Figure 7.
having a female author. She
the computers. Many papers
Braille output and natural
laboratory gave a public
Figure 7 Machine Translation of Natural Language 1955
One feature of Andrew Booth’s time at Birkbeck were two prizes given in memory of
his parents and a research studentship. The Catherine Jane Booth prize was awarded
alternately in the departments of Classics and History of Art and the Sidney Joseph
Booth prize in Mathematics, preference being given to Applied Mathematics. These
continued for many years after he left. Finally, from the 1955/56 session, there was the
Hollerith research studentship, funded by the BTM Company Ltd, of £325 per annum
for competition by graduates to read full-time for a higher degree on “digital computers
or kindred subject”.
The College Report of 1956/57 reported change was in the air as a University computer
service was established. It reports:
The work of the [Birkbeck] Computer Laboratory has changed its emphasis from computing to
development because the former function will now be adequately fulfilled by the new
University Computational Unit.
However, language processing work continued apace:
Work on machine translation of languages has, however, continued at full speed and with the
completion of the French programme for scientific texts attention has been transferred to
German and to aspects of Platonic chronology. The laboratory was fortunate in having Dr Rais
Ahmed, from the University of Aligarh, as a guest during part of his sabbatical leave and his
presence gave considerable impact to the work on spoken word recognition.
One of the College’s best known former students and now a College Fellow, Dame
Steve Shirley, who later founded a major UK software house remembers, as a student
of mathematics and computing at that time:
intoning "one, one, one .... two, two, two ...." into a tape recorder for some very early voice
recognition research led by Andrew Booth
However, the high point of the 1956/57 academic year was the Governors’ resolution
on July 18th 1957 that:
From the beginning of the next session the Computer Laboratory be constituted as a separate
Department under the Headship of Dr A D Booth
The author has been told that the Department of Numerical Automation was the first
department established to teach computing in a UK university, elsewhere the
courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories. This is a difficult claim to verify
and the author would welcome any information of earlier departments.
Outside the Department, Andrew Booth’s played a key role through his appointment as
chairman of a committee formed to set up a “National Computer Society”. The 1956/57
Report notes that when it was formed in June 1957 he was elected to serve on the first
Council of the British Computer Society.
Despite the start of a university computing service, Andrew Booth continued to build
new machines. After the APEC machines, came MAC (Magnetic Automatic
Calculator). Three examples of a development of MAC named M.2 were built by
Wharf Engineering Ltd, a company established by Andrew Booth and his father and
which operated from Fenny Compton. These were for UCL, Kings College and
Imperial College. The machine delivered to Kings College is shown in Figure 8. The
Governors’ minutes of July 18th 1957 record a grant from Imperial College of £8,000
for the construction of their machine. The Annual Report for 1957/58 notes
The keynote of the M.2 is, as in previous machines, small size and simplicity, and an idea of
what has been achieved is provided by the fact that M.2 occupies a space rather less than that of
an office desk, consumes as much power as an electric fire, but has roughly the speed and
capacity of the much larger commercial machines which are being provided for some of the
smaller Universities.
Figure 8 M.2 awaiting delivery to KCL in 1959 with Department Secretary, Jill Metherell
The College Annual Report of 1958/59, in a foretaste of much more recent work,
reports Dr Kathleen Booth developing a program to simulate a neural network to
investigate ways in which animals recognise patterns. The following year reports a
neural network for character recognition.
The 1960/61 College Report records with some hyperbole that:
In the early summer [1961] the College received the greatest benefaction in its history, when
International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. offered to make available to the Department of
Numerical Automation the I.C.T. Type 1400 Computer, of which the market value is little less
than a quarter-of-a-million pounds. The generous action was a notable compliment to Dr A.D,
Booth for his pioneering efforts in the computer field, and especially for his work on
mechanical translation and in promoting the study of the analysis of language. The availability
of this new giant will greatly enhance the possibilities of highly successful progress in these
studies. Suitable accommodation is being sought for its housing. The Nuffield Foundation made
a generous grant of £10,000 towards the cost of installation and commissioning.
The department estimated that the machine was roughly ten times as fast as the
University Ferranti Mercury. The following year the College Report records that the
ICT 1400 would be housed in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
However, it also recorded that Andrew and Kathleen Booth resigned at the end of the
1961/62 academic year. Andrew Booth has given his account of the circumstances in
two places 7,8 ; mainly due to the College not conferring a Chair on him. In retrospect
this was a massive loss to the College and, from today’s perspective, totally
incomprehensible given his key contributions to computer technology and his huge
research output. Andrew Booth moved to Canada where he continued his distinguished
career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as
President of Lakehead University, Ontario.
The impact of his departure was bound to be considerable. The problems were
compounded by the College failing to appoint an experienced academic to lead the
Andrew D Booth, an autobiographical sketch in Annals of the History of Computing, Vol 19, No 4
(1997) pp57-63.
Pioneers of Computing interviewed by Christopher Evans for the Science Museum, London 1976.
department. For the interim, Mike Levison, who had joined as an assistant lecturer two
years earlier, was appointed Acting Head of Department.
The installation of a large computer into space not planned for it inevitably gives rise to
problems. The first difficulty, in what would become a long running, sad saga, was a
long delay until the start of the 1962/63 academic year waiting for the installation of the
special power supply. The following year records better than expected progress
following the acquisition of paper tape I/O equipment. The report ends optimistically
“some useful time should be available next session”.
Of more long lasting significance is the final sentence in the Annual Report that
From the start of the next session [1963/64] the title of the department will be changed to
Department of Computer Science.
The Annual Report for 1963/64 reports that during the session the line-printer had been
commissioned and towards the end of the session a magnetic tape unit was brought into
service. Overall, the machine is reported as being “in use for a high proportion of the
time each day”. Alan Sentance and Frank Burgoyne developed “several new
programming aids”. A year the later the punch card reader was working and Simon
Evans had joined “to write a CHLF 3 Autocode compiler for the computer which will
benefit the majority of users”. Without such a compiler, users were obliged to write
programs in assembly language.
However, while peripherals and system software progressed, the Annual Report for
1965/66 ominously reported:
The reliability of the machine gave cause for considerable concern. The underlying reasons for
this were carefully investigated with the assistance of one of the original machine designers
from I.C.T., and a number of modifications made. As a result the machine and tape decks are
now operating satisfactorily.
The report concludes by noting the appointment of our longest serving colleague
Trevor Fenner as an assistant lecturer for the academic year 1966/67 and who is
happily still in the School today.
The following year, 1967, was a momentous year for Birkbeck. The College adopted
the recommendations of the Ashby Report 9 into the future role of the College which
specifically turned the College away from teaching full time undergraduates. The
College heeded the advice of the then Chairman of the Universities Grants Committee
(UGC). However, the College finances took a heavy blow when the following year the
funding to match the UGC’s suggestions failed to materialise. After this unpromising
start the Annual Report continues
We need urgently to put our Computer Science department on a firm footing and to add to the
strength of our Statistics Department, both the subject of rising part-time demand.
As a result a Chair in Computer Science was established and a search was started for a
suitable candidate.
Report of the Academic Advisory Committee on Birkbeck College, “Ashby Report”, May 1967.
Given the financial position of the College it is not surprising to read in the
departmental section of the Report:
During the year it was finally decided that the 1400 Computer had outlived its usefulness, and
the machine was dismantled. In the coming year the College is to receive a 217 Data Link to the
CDC 6600 Computer, which the University is to install at a site in Guilford Street.
This brought to an end the sad story of the ICT 1400 which had arrived to such fanfares
in 1961. Departmental staff who only remember using the Ferranti Atlas so it seems
likely that it never provided a useful service. Some years later an official history of ICL
was published which provides an interesting contrast to the Birkbeck version. It
The 1400 series was ICT’s prestige computer project. It had been heavily publicised since 1958;
but during 1959 not a single sale had materialized. The 1400 was a first generation machine
based on thermionic valves, and this technology was being rapidly overtaken by the new
transistor electronics. … There was no prospect of selling the machine in the 1960s. As a result
the entire project was scrapped, and the prototype sold off to Dr Andrew Booth at Birkbeck
College for a token £5,000.
Thus it appears that far from being the “greatest benefaction in its history” as the
Master wrote in the 1961 report, the College was effectively given an obsolescent
prototype computer, which no longer had any value for its builders. It is beyond the
author of this short history to sort out how this sorry chain of events came about or to
explain the motives of the various parties involved!
However, on a more optimistic note, 1967 was not without significant benefit to the
School with the arrival in January of a new lecturer, George Loizou, who, now as an
Emeritus Professor, is still actively researching and publishing here.
The next academic year brought the very difficult 1960’s to a close with substantial
promise for the future. The Department’s contribution to the Annual Report was fuller
than usual and noted several important developments. In November 1968, 29 students
were awarded M.Sc’s, seven with distinction. Demand for the M.Sc remained buoyant
with 400 applications for the less than 40 places available. It records that, in June 1969,
the College was connected to the new massive CDC 6600 via a punched card remote
job entry terminal. This transformed the College’s computing facilities.
The report ends with staffing changes, where two more stalwarts of the School joined
the lecturing staff, Tom Westerdale from the USA and Mick Farmer who had
previously been on the research staff. Finally, only seven years after Andrew Booth’s
departure it notes that:
During the summer vacation the Department learned that Mr P J H King, Head of the Computer Unit
at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (and also Treasurer of the Court of Electors
[alumni association] at Birkbeck), had been appointed to the vacant Chair in the Department. He
takes up his appointment on the 1st January 1970.
Thus the department was finally able to put behind it the uncertainties and
disappointments of the 1960s and with student demand buoyant and greatly enhanced
computing facilities it could move forward to greet the challenges of the 1970s.
3. The Making of the Modern School
The Ashby Report in 1967 on the future options for Birkbeck had highlighted the
urgency for the College to put the Department of Computer Science on a proper footing
as it was clear that there was significant demand from students for courses and so the
area had significant growth potential. Peter King took up the Chair of Computer
Science on January 1st 1970, not a Bank Holiday in those days! The Annual Report
records a small but very familiar list of other academic staff – Mick Farmer, Trevor
Fenner, George Loizou and Tom Westerdale together with Mike Levison who was
about to leave for Canada to be replaced by Jim Inglis.
By the following year the new direction for the department was becoming clear. The
1970/71 Annual Report records that
Research activity included participation in the current discussion in the industry on data base
technology and Professor King lectured at the one-day conference of the BCS in October on the
DBTG proposals emanating from CODASYL.
The College Calendar for 1970/71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a
distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer
assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. The IT support staff of the
College and the Department all reported to the Head of the Computer Science
Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College
Computer Service was created.
November 1971 saw the appointment of Betty Walters as the department’s secretary.
Betty finally retired in 2007 having seen the department through almost every
challenge and drama that academia can provide over 36 years.
The research activities of the department by the early 1970s lay in the areas of Data
Management and Artificial Intelligence, which have continued to be developed and
enhanced right up to the present day, leading to the School’s current major research
groups in and Information Management & Web Technologies and Computational
A notable event was the College Open Day on Friday July 13th 1973. The Annual
Report notes that
The computer services section did a splendid job in entertaining and enlightening the populace
as well as assisting members of staff and postgraduate students with the more specialist
equipment demonstrations.
However, the high spot was the visit of the relatively unknown Secretary of State for
Education, Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Luckily a photographer was there to record her
meeting with a young Peter King, see Figure 9.
The University of London’s Institute of Computer Science in Gordon Square had
developed from the earlier University Computational Unit initially running a Ferranti
Orion later replaced by the Ferranti Atlas computer. It taught courses leading to the
University M.Sc in Computer Science which allowed students registered at one
participating institution to take courses for credit at another. The result was a healthy
interchange of students between, among others, Birkbeck and the Institute. However,
with the coming of the University of London Computer Centre in Guilford Street
running a university wide service on their CDC 6600 and the ending of the Atlas
service, one key role of the ICS disappeared. In the consequent review the decision was
made to close the ICS in 1972. The staff were transferred to other colleges and
Figure 9 Peter King meets Margaret Thatcher at the 1973 Open Day
the former Head of the Institute, Prof Dick Buckingham, moved to Birkbeck as
Professor of Computer Education together with his secretary until his retirement in
The promotion of John Florentin to a Chair in 1977 meant that for a short while the
department had three professors, a situation that was not to recur until the early 1990s.
In 1978/79 it became known that the Department was finally to be united on a
permanent basis on a single site accommodating all its staff, research staff and students
and its equipment in Senate House. This brought to an end the long period of
inconvenience and uncertainty throughout the 1970s. The Annual Report discusses
briefly the technological advances made in the 1970s before concluding with the
masterly understatement that
Failures in software engineering techniques will undoubtedly cause many disappointed hopes in
the 1980s. The area remains a considerable challenge.
The department entered the 1980s with two professors and seven lecturers although
George Loizou was shortly to be promoted to a Readership. However, the department
was about to be changed significantly by a government scheme to offer a very generous
early retirement scheme to older staff and a “New Blood” scheme to attract younger
staff. The result was the arrival of the author in 1983 (at age 37 some thought not very
“New Blood”!) but offset by the retirement in September 1984 of Peter King and also
David Cairns who had been running the Diploma in Computer Science, although Peter
King was subsequently re-engaged as a part-time Senior Research Fellow which he
combined with the headship of the department until a successor was appointed. The
following year John Florentin also took early retirement leaving a staff in October 1985
of one Reader, one Senior Lecturer and five lecturers.
The start of the academic year 1986/87 saw significant change with the appointment of
Clement Leung from UCL to a Chair of Computer Science and Head of Department.
He had published extensively on performance studies of disc units and so
complemented the work of a number of the other academics on data base management.
It also saw the arrival of three stalwarts of the department – Keith Mannock who came
with Clement Leung from UCL, Nigel Martin (who had been a temporary lecturer in
1985/86), and Roger Mitton; the latter two following the familiar pattern of having
graduated well from our postgraduate programmes.
1985 had seen the College struggling with one of its periodic financial crises. A report
was produced by a committee under the chairmanship of Barney Hayhoe, MP, a
College governor, which recommended that the College to improve its financial
management of its core academic business by grouping departments together into
Resource Centres. The buoyant Computer Science department was grouped with the
struggling department of Mathematics to form one such Centre. The author was
appointed to head this Resource Centre. The department of Statistics chose for its own
reasons to join Geography and Economics in another Resource Centre. The Resource
Centre Heads provided a “kitchen cabinet” for the then new Master, Dr Tessa
The School had a heavy preponderance of researchers on data management, probably
the largest in the UK at that time. Consequently it was natural that members of the
department played a major role in organising the Very Large Data Base (VLDB)
conference in 1987 which was held at the Brighton Conference Centre and attended by
over 700 delegates from all over the world.
The continued decline in Mathematics student numbers meant that the department was
able to benefit from the transfer from that department of Ken Thomas and Keith Gibson
in 1988 who rapidly settled into their new home.
In 1991 the College reviewed the operation of the Resource Centres and concluded they
were working effectively but that some were too small. Consequently Computer
Science and Mathematics were merged with Economics, Geography, Management and
Organizational Psychology and Statistics to form a larger Resource Centre led by
David Rhind. His departure the following year resulted in the author resuming the post
of Head of Resource Centre. The department thought carefully about whether to join
this “social sciences” group or to opt to join the “science” grouping. The decision to opt
for the former was influenced by several factors including the preponderance of
postgraduate students in the social sciences group and the shared undergraduate
teaching with Management. This decision to join “Resource Centre C” was, after
subsequent adoption of faculties, to result in the uncommon situation of having a
School of Computer Science and Information Systems in a Faculty of Social Sciences.
As the College recovered from its financial difficulties, Tessa Blackstone embarked on
a substantial round of fundraising. About 1991, following a lunch with Lord (David)
Young, who was a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, the department
received a request from the Master’s office to prepare a proposal for Cable & Wireless,
of which he was then Chairman, for a new development in “business information
systems”. The result was the endowment of the Cable & Wireless Chair in Information
Systems, held by Guy Fitzgerald, and the creation of the department’s own
undergraduate programme jointly with the Department of Management described more
fully in section 4. Tessa Blackstone then obtained further funding from Camelot to
provide initial funding for a further lecturership in Information Systems, held since then
by David Wilson.
The new B.Sc course proved a winner from the start. The course has proved among the
most consistent recruiting courses with first year intakes restricted in some years by the
capacity of the computing laboratories. The College has endeavoured to respond to
student growth with additional staff posts and so through the later 1990s additional staff
joined the department. By 2002 this had reached 21academic staff.
The staff of the Department continued to contribute to advancing the profession and
research. In 1992/93 the author served as President of the British Computer Society. In
1997 the department hosted two conferences, firstly the 15th British National
Conference on Data Bases (BNCOD) and secondly the 2nd International Symposium on
Intelligent Data Analysis (IDA-97).
The School’s portfolio of courses increased still further in 1998 when the then College
Secretary asked if the department would wish to take over a Certificate and Diploma
programme in IT Applications from the Centre for Extra Mural Studies (CEMS). The
costs of this course to CEMS were substantial as they had to hire expensive computer
workstation rooms. Since the course was taught both in the evenings and at the
weekends the department could largely use its own workstations. This addition brought
Janet Billinge and Ian Harrison on to the department’s staff. It also meant that the
department, uniquely in the college, was offering a portfolio that covered short courses,
undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees. These vocational short courses have
proved extremely popular with typically over 400 attendees each year.
In research, the 1990s saw further expansion into bio-, medical and neural informatics,
information systems, and software engineering, with further increases in the School’s
numbers of research students, both full-time and part-time.
In 1999 it was agreed to replace the College’s unusual “Resource Centre” structure by
more conventional faculties and to re-designate Departments as Schools. “Resource
Centre C” became a more intelligible Faculty of Social Sciences, Resource Centre
Heads became Deans and the Department of Computer Science adopted its current
name of School of Computer Science and Information Systems.
The next major event came with a government initiative to establish Foundation
Degrees (FD) which would combine traditional academic study with workplace skills.
The Foundation Degree was one of four launched in January 2002. This has proved to
be another very popular course and is described in more detail in section 4.
At this time, the College gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two
members of the Birkbeck community who had made distinguished contributions to the
advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, Figure 10,
who created a major UK software house whose workforce for many years was
composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done
much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities,
especially in the field of autism. Secondly in 2003 it awarded a College Fellowship to
Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.
Figure 10 Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in
2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of the Governors
The School’s research activities in the 2000s have expanded further, into advanced
logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous
computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff. The
School’s current staff complement stands at 21 academic staff – 5 Professors, 2
Readers, 4 Senior Lecturers, 10 Lecturers; 4 academic-related staff; 8 research staff; 3
teaching assistants; 5 systems support and 6 administrative staff.
2004 saw the School embark on its biggest ever initiative, in partnership with the
neighbouring Institute of Education. This was the establishment of the London
Knowledge Lab (LKL) bringing together in one shared building academics with
interests in education, sociology, culture and media, semiotics, data mining,
information management, personalisation and ubiquitous technologies. The project
was made possible by a £6 million grant from the Science Research Investment Fund,
see Figure 11.
This has created a unique mix of over 50 researchers who can tackle issues from many
different perspectives, and this is reflected in the LKL’s mission, which is to:
Understand the place of digital technologies and media in our cultural, social and
educational relationships with knowledge – finding, acquiring, creating, and sharing
Design, build and evaluate systems, processes and interfaces that enhance learning,
both formal and informal, throughout life; and
Examine critically the assumptions about knowledge and learning that underlie the
increasingly wide range of applications of digital technologies.
The ways in which we learn, and what we need to know, are changing. The LKL’s
research aims to explore and invent the roles of technology in this process, and to
understand how technology relates to broader social, economic and cultural factors.
The LKL has two Co-Directors, one from each institution. The first Computer Science
Co-Director was Mark Levene who was succeeded by Alex Poulovassilis.
Figure 11 Ground Floor of the London Knowledge Lab
January 2008 saw the School embarking on its latest initiative. This was to run the
College’s first degree programme in Stratford. With strong support from the Higher
Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the College is working in
partnership with the University of East London to bring the Birkbeck tradition of
research-led higher education to a new campus in Stratford in east London. Not
surprisingly, preliminary market research showed keen interest in computing courses.
In response the School has advertised its successful Foundation Degree in IT and 17
students formed the first cohort of students.
Life in our discipline is never dull. The rapidly evolving technology is always opening
up new application areas while new challenges from the real world drive the
technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. Technology
development is now largely in the hands of large industrial corporations while the
universities are increasingly focussed on novel uses of the technology.
4. Courses
The Department has always been characterised by a strong series of postgraduate
degree programmes supplemented more recently by a B.Sc degree programme, an IT
Skills Certificate and Diploma programme and most recently by a Foundation degree.
The earliest references to teaching are in the College Calendars for 1949/50 and
1950/51 where it states that Dr Andrew Booth will give a lecture series entitled the
“Theory and Design of Computing Machines” although for both years it is marked
“Courses to be arranged”. They disappeared as suddenly as they appeared so possibly
they were ahead of their time!
The next reference is in the Calendar for 1956/57 which describes an “Academic
Postgraduate Diploma in Numerical Analysis”. It says that the course is
…. intended for Honours graduates in Mathematics, Physics and Engineering. It provides training in
the programming and design of automatic computing machines as well as in numerical analysis. The
course extends over two years for part-time students and consists of lectures and practical work on
problem preparation, both for hand machines and for an automatic digital calculator.
The 1958/59 Calendar gives us a breakdown of the course content:
Dr A D Booth
Dr Kathleen H V Booth
Dr D R Cox
Dr J C E Jennings
Numerical Methods, The design of Computing machines
Monte Carlo methods
Finite difference processes and ordinary differential equations
The following year, Practical Numerical Analysis was added to the Diploma, taught
initially by Mr (later Prof) A J T Colin. The first three successful graduates are listed in
the 1961/62 Calendar as Ronald Ades, Ian Brighton and Arthur Nice to be followed in
the 1961/62 Annual Report by William (Alan) Sentance, who like many later graduates
decided to stay at Birkbeck by joining the staff!
The next development in teaching was the re-designation of the Diploma for the
1965/66 academic year as an M.Sc in Computer Science covering three topics – Basic
Computer Science, Algorithmic Languages and Compilers, and Numerical Methods. In
addition the Department also started offering undergraduate modules for the College
B.Sc degree scheme. The M.Sc was an instant success with over 100 applications
reported for the 30 places in 1965/66 with many more received for 1966/67. The first
11 graduates (3 with distinction) are listed in the Annual Report in 1967/68 and 27 the
following year.
At the same time as launching the M.Sc the Department substantially increased its
range of undergraduate modules offered to any student on the modular B.Sc degree.
This increased numbers of undergraduates studying with the Department to over 100
although there was never a B.Sc in Computer Science. This pattern of teaching
continued throughout the 1970s although the number of undergraduate modules offered
slowly declined. This was reversed in the late 1980s when the Department rapidly
expanded its undergraduate provision on the B.Sc in Mathematics, Statistics and
Computing programme but the programme ceased to be offered in 1997/98.
Following Andrew Booth’s departure the production of PhD candidates diminished and
only resumed with that of the author, in 1974. Recruitment to the MPhil/PhD degrees
continued thereafter and increased steadily from the 1980s to the present day, when
there are currently over 40 research students in the School.
Following the closure of the Institute of Computer Science in the early 1970s, Dick
Buckingham brought with him a Diploma in Computer Management Studies which ran
for several years until his retirement. This was a course on the management of
computer centres, aimed at mature international students mainly from then newly
independent Commonwealth countries and who received support from UNESCO.
The Annual Report for 1978/79 noted that the department had formally transferred
teaching of Numerical Analysis to the Department of Mathematics with the comment
This rationalisation was somewhat overdue ... and accords with the generally accepted view
among computer scientists. This department continues its two undergraduate service courses,
Introductory Computing, and Computer Systems and Programming, for which there continues
to be a demand.
The growing number of undergraduate computer science courses in universities meant
that the range of prior knowledge and experience of MSc applicants was dramatically
widening. Some students were seeking advanced study following an undergraduate
computing degree while others had only limited computing experience. The decision
was taken to offer two separate courses, namely the existing Masters degree for those
with a computing related first degree and a new course for those studying computer
science for the first time. The result was the introduction of a Diploma in Computer
Science in the 1977 Calendar. The new Diploma is described as “essentially a
‘conversion’ qualification but applicants should already have some practical computing
This pattern continued successfully until the end of the 1980s when student numbers on
the Diploma started to decline as most other UK universities offered an M.Sc to
successful “conversion” course students. The decision was taken to re-designate the
Diploma as an M.Sc in Computing Science (to distinguish it from the advanced M.Sc
in Computer Science) and to rename the M.Sc in Computer Science as an M.Sc in
Database and Information Systems. Inevitably this took several years due to both
courses being offered full and part time. However, the Calendar for 1990/91 shows
both of the new names in place.
The M.Sc conversion course is unique at Birkbeck by being offered full time, part time
and day release. Given the substantial numbers of full time students that joined the
course each year and the limitations on workstation facilities it was customary to teach
most modules twice – once in the day and once in the evening. It took only a little rearrangement of the timetable in the mid 1980s to offer part time students an opportunity
of studying for one whole day and one further evening rather than on three evenings.
This continues to be a popular mode of study for around 20% of part timers.
The case for the Cable & Wireless Chair in Information Systems stipulated the creation
of a new B.Sc course in Information Systems and Management. The College had
established a new Department of Management in 1992 whose initial degree
programmes were BA degrees in Management and a language – French, German or
Spanish. Consequently it was relatively easy to reuse the Management part of these
programmes and to combine it with a new Information Systems programme composed
of mainly new modules covering computing topics with a strong emphasis on the
application of IT to modern organisations. From its start in October 1993, this course
proved a major success and for many years has been amongst the best recruiting
undergraduate programmes in the College.
Figure 12 Happy M.Sc Computing Science students in 1995
working in the then recently refitted workstation room 131
In 1998, the department was asked by the then College Secretary if it would be
interested in taking over a Certificate and Diploma programme in IT Applications
taught in the Centre for Extra Mural Studies. The programme consisted of a wide
variety of skills based modules, each taught over 6 week periods both in the evenings
and at weekends. Successful completion of 6 modules gave the student a Certificate
and a further 3 modules plus a project resulted in a Diploma. These modules proved
popular with some students taking just one module while others went on to obtain a
Certificate or Diploma. Each year students register in total for around 400 modules.
The number of students coming forward to the M.Sc in Database and Information
Systems fell steadily during the 1990s and the decision was reluctantly taken to close
the course with the last cohort starting the course in October 1997.
The next addition resulted from an approach from colleagues in Economics who had
observed the way leading US universities were responding to the early growth of the
dot.com boom. They proposed to the departments of Management and Computer
Science that we should jointly mount a Postgraduate Diploma in E-commerce with
successful students being able to study for a further year to obtain an M.Sc in Ecommerce. Formal approval was rushed through the College in the Spring of 1999 and
the course started in October 1999 with around 40 students. Over the succeeding few
years applications far outstripped places as the dot.com boom grew but with the
dot.com bust numbers fell away. In 2004, it was renamed as an M.Sc in E-business. As
much of this novel technology becomes mainstream in the industry, the justification for
a special course decreases and the course’s future is currently under discussion.
January 2002 saw the launch by the College of four Foundation degrees which take 8
terms to complete part time compared to 6 terms full time in other universities. The
courses have a strong emphasis on employer engagement. This latter issue has proved a
challenge for our students in full time employment but often not working in an IT
related position. To address this, staff have developed innovative work related modules
combined with small scale project work for external organisations such as local
charities. The first two terms of the programme use modules from the IT Applications
The Foundation degrees broke with convention by starting in January so that successful
graduates could progress to an honours degree. For successful students on the
Foundation degree in IT they are able to progress to a two year B.Sc in Information
Systems and Computing which is largely derived from the information systems and
computing modules on the B.Sc in Information Systems and Management degree.
Although the earlier advanced M.Sc course had closed, staff continued to receive
enquiries from suitably qualified applicants and it has launched a suite of three
advanced M.Sc courses in Advanced Information Systems (2003), Web Information
Management (2005) and Intelligent Information Systems (2006). These courses have
concentrated on the School’s collective research strengths in the areas of data and
knowledge management, web technologies and intelligent information processing. The
School also introduced an M.Res course in 2003 as a pathway to research within the
School. The taught part of the M.Res shares modules with the advanced M.Sc
In October 2007, another course began in conjunction with the School of Economics
aimed at the needs of the City. This is a Graduate Diploma in IT for Finance. This
course is aimed at the growing shortage of IT staff with an understanding of the needs
of financial markets. It is composed of modules drawn from the two Schools and covers
programming in C++ with special reference to finance applications, quantitative and
computational techniques for finance and an introduction to financial markets.
Birkbeck is committed to widening access. The Higher Education Funding Council for
England has funded Birkbeck to start a new campus at Stratford in east London. The
School was very pleased to launch Birkbeck’s first degree programme at the new
campus when in January 2008 a cohort of students began to study for the Foundation
Degree in IT entirely at the Stratford campus.
Finally, autumn 2008 sees the launch of a new M.Res in Information Systems &
Management aimed at attracting students from the B.Sc course who wish to study
further with the possibility of ultimately conducting research for an M.Phil/Ph.D..
Our students have always looked for vocationally relevant courses. In a fast changing
area like computing this imposes a major burden on staff to continuously update
curricula and regularly enhance the portfolio of courses. The popularity of many of
these programmes over many years is the result of the School’s continuing commitment
to provide courses which are attractive to study and also vocationally rewarding.
5. Locations
The first home for the post-war Physics and Chemistry departments was in the
laboratories of the Royal Institution but by 1947 they had moved into two bomb
damaged houses 21/22 Torrington Square, see Figure 13. The Physics department
occupied no. 22 (the left hand house in the picture) and Bernal had a flat at the top of
the building.
Figure 13 Nos 21 and 22 Torrington Square (No 22 on left and slightly set back)
Everyone was packed in very tight and there was no room to build a computer.
Consequently Andrew Booth looked for space elsewhere. The first ARC computer was
built at the British Rubber Producers Research Association facilities in Welwyn Garden
City as they were funding his work He later started building computers at his father’s
home in Fenny Compton. However, in 1949 the wartime static water tank between nos
22 and 27 was made into a one storey basement building behind the wall in Figure 14.
This became the home for Birkbeck’s Electronic Computer Laboratory,
Figure 14 Location of the Static Water Tank shortly before building of
Clore Management Centre
The department remained in the static water tank for some years. Most photographs of
early Andrew Booth computers surrounded by painted brickwork were taken in this
building. By the late 1960s a new home was needed for the growing number of staff
being recruited. The building subsequently passed to the Department of Organizational
Psychology and continued in use until the construction of the Clore Management
Centre, which opened in 1997.
The new location chosen for the department, albeit on a short lease, was the basement
of Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place, shown in Figure 15. The Annual Report notes
The Department of Computer Science moved – in a weekend, thanks to the efficiency and
enthusiasm of our Attendants – to new quarters in Mary Ward House: the department’s
accommodation is inadequate but the move was urgent to make way for the Woburn Place
It provided accommodation for academic and support staff, research students as well as
a large room with punched card and paper tape equipment and a lecture room.
However, as the department grew, some staff were housed in Malet Street.
Figure 15 Mary Ward House 2008
In the summer vacation of 1973 the Department was on the move again this time to 1012 Gower Street, see Figure 16. This was another temporary move as the Department’s
contribution to the College Annual Report laments:
Unfortunately the move is again to temporary accommodation, …, with the promised land of
Senate House still very nebulously in the future.
The two Georgian houses were badly suited to the needs of a Computer Science
Department with its regular movement of contemporary large and heavy equipment
such as processors, disc drives and printers and were still too small to accommodate
Figure 16 10-12 Gower Street
all members of the Department.
However, the Department remained in Gower Street until the end of the 1970s when
Birkbeck was able finally to acquire the 1st floor and basement of the North Block of
Senate House, in Figure 17, when the Institute of Education moved into its new
building. The Computer Science department was allocated the 1st floor and after some
interior rebuilding it was ready for the start of the 1980/1 academic year. In addition to
staff accommodation, it included two lecture theatres and a large air conditioned
computer room which housed the Department’s growing range of machines and
subsequently the College’s main computer and also some of the College computing
Figure 17 Senate House North Block
As the department grew, it was able to acquire rooms from other departments in the
Senate House basement. With the ending of the mainframe era, the College Computer
Unit moved out of North Block into the main building. The Department converted the
former computer room into a workstation room as the Department’s computers shrank
in size to small modern servers and communications equipment.
In 2004 the London Knowledge Lab was created with HEFCE funding as a joint
research laboratory of the School and the Institute of Education (IoE). A new building,
shown in Figure 18, was acquired in Emerald Street, off Theobalds Road. This building
has four floors and a basement. The ground floor, including a lecture room, is shared by
all the occupants and the School occupies the 1st floor while the IoE occupies the two
upper floors.
Figure 18 London Knowledge Lab
The School’s latest venture is teaching the Foundation Degree in IT at Stratford. At
present taught in the premises of the University of East London, the College hopes to
have its own building by 2011 adjacent to Stratford station, shown in the artist’s
impression in Figure 19.
Figure 19 Artist's Impression of Stratford Campus
Space remains a recurring theme and, as this account is being written, Senate House is
subject to a massive rolling programme of rewiring. This is going to necessitate
vacating North Block at least for an academic year and it is not finally confirmed that
the School will return after the rewiring to this building - its home for the past almost
30 years.
6. Conclusion
This account has briefly traced the growth of the research and teaching of Computer
Science at Birkbeck over the 50 years of the department’s existence and the decade
leading up to it. Looking back it is perhaps fair to say that the School was a precocious
youngster. The departure of Andrew and Kathleen Booth undoubtedly left a gaping
hole. With the appointment of Peter King in 1970 the department began to evolve
steadily into today’s School with its strong emphasis on data and knowledge
management and web technologies combined also with the other large and newer
research group in Computational Intelligence. These groups remain true to the tradition
of School research which has stressed applicability in the real world.
Our students have always valued courses that reflect contemporary IT practice. The
need every year to attract to our courses students who are paying their own fees
challenges us to justify our course content to often well-informed enquirers.
The satisfaction of delivering high quality research led education is considerable.
Working with mature students proves for many of us to be a very rewarding
experience. Perhaps the unique combination of these two features at Birkbeck is what
explains the number of colleagues who have devoted all or much of their careers to
researching and teaching here.
As the School embarks on the second half century it is hard to foretell what our
successors will be teaching in 50 years time. What I believe we can be sure of is that
information technology will remain a key enabling technology for modern civilisation
and like all technologies it will be require an educated professional workforce to build
and maintain the new applications for which society seems to have an almost insatiable
The author is indebted to students and colleagues throughout the College for
their valued assistance and encouragement while I was writing this account of
our School.
A special word of thanks goes to Roger Mitton for reading the draft manuscript
and to Nimali Udukalage who created the cover.
Finally, I am grateful for colleagues who have pointed out corrections and
omissions, nonetheless the final responsibility for any remaining mistakes are
mine alone.
Roger Johnson
April 2008
Academic Staff
Booth (nee Britten)
di Marzo Serugendo
The School Today
Some members of the 2008 department:
Front row (l to r): Boris Mirkin, Gilda Andreani, Szabolcs Mikulas, Jane Lucas, Nimali
Udukalage, Tara Orlanes-Angelopoulou, Phil Docking, Tony Griffith
Second row; Tom Westerdale, George Magoulas, Steve Maybank, David Wilson, Peter
Wood, Jenny Pedler, Peter King, Michael Zakharyaschev, Dell Zhang
Third row: Darren Pearce, Sergio Gutierrez, Nigel Martin, Mick Farmer, Sven Helmer
Back row: Gordon McIntyre, Trevor Fenner, Petar Konovski, Roger Mitton, Phil Gregg
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street, Bloomsbury
London WC1E 7HX
Tel 020 7631 6700
Fax 020 7631 6727
Back cover left to Front cover right:
Andrew Booth’s Drum,
HEC2 Card Reader/Printer,
HEC2 Function Mesh,
Andrew Booth,
LKL Students,
Dame Stephanie Shirley.
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