CW@50: 1966 - Computer Weekly goes to bat for the British computer industry

Launched in 1966 as part of a modernising wave to change British society, Computer Weekly battled for the nation’s industry against the US, and saw IT as an entry ticket to the Common Market

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Computer Weekly 50th anniversary special

Computer Weekly is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a series of articles celebrating 50 years of British technology innovation. In this article, we look back to 1966 when the first issue was published, to give the technology and cultural context that led to the launch of the world's first weekly technology newspaper.

The year 1966 saw England win the World Cup, Eleanor Rigby pick up the rice where a wedding had been, and the launch of Computer Weekly.

Looking back at those England footballers – with their short haircuts and blazers – it is tempting to think of the period as a black and white time steeped in nostalgia. And indeed the working class and provincial footballers of the time do look like throwbacks to 1950s “austerity Britain” – to borrow historian David Kynaston’s term.

In the World Cup final, England played what was back then a modern 4-4-2 formation and secured a victory that would be echoed by the European Cup-winning exploits of Celtic in 1967 and Manchester United in 1968. In those days, British football teams were too modern and fit – thanks to a wartime diet free of junk food – for their hitherto dominant Latin opponents. It was, though, only a brief period of relative success for native footballers.

British pop music enjoyed an international prominence that still continues. The Beatles and the Stones incarnated a musical revolution that was part of a youth rebellion that would encompass the anti-Vietnam war campaign, the May 68 civil strife that shook France and the sexual permissiveness of Swinging London. Rarely was one generation so sharply differentiated from another as in the 1960s. 

And what of Computer Weekly, first published in that year of “they think it’s all over – it is now”?

Computer Weekly is born

The first issue of the newspaper was published on 22 September 1966. Its publisher was Iliffe Electrical Publications, based in Stamford Street on London’s South Bank. The paper had a controlled circulation of 10,000 computer professionals, and an annual subscription price of £4 4s.

The first issue of Computer Weekly, published on 22 September 1966

In an interview with Computer Weekly in April 2011, Chris Hipwell, its first managing editor, said the newspaper was created as a spin-off from another Iliffe journal: “I was working at the time on Data Processing, a quarterly magazine. I realised we were missing out lots of stories and quite a lot of revenue was going into recruitment advertising.”

So he devised a plan for a weekly IT title in 1965. “At that stage we got a small group together and came up with the idea of a weekly tabloid newspaper printed on newsprint,” he said in 2011.

Modernising Britain

The 1966 issues of Computer Weekly show little signs of the sort of “counter-culture” that would later develop in San Francisco and New York alongside the US computer industry. But they do reveal an editorial team that thought Britain needed modernising and that computers could help do that.

Computer Weekly stood up for the British computer industry against the threat of America. And it saw the country’s computer industry as helping to support British entry to the European Common Market. In the 27 October 1966 issue, it approvingly cites an Economist article advocating that Britain should “reinforce its request to enter the Common Market by proposing a European research and development community in computers run with common funds on the lines of existing European communities such as the one for coal and steel”.

The paper does, admittedly, reveal the computer industry as dominated by (young) chaps in suits and ties. But it was part of the “white heat of the technological revolution” that Harold Wilson, the prime minister, had famously called for in 1963.

The context was, however, one of hard struggle. Kynaston writes in his book Modernity Britain: 1957-62 (2015 edition, pp497-8) that the country’s nascent computer industry was two to three years behind the US, despite British scientists and businesses having been among the pioneers in the late 1940s and early 1950s: “Too many firms (principally International Computers and Tabulators (ICT), Elliott Automation, Ferranti, Leo Computers and English Electric) were chasing too small a domestic market, with only about £15m worth of computers sold between 1960-61.”

IBM, by contrast, with a huge domestic market behind it, and US government support for research, proved too powerful. The IBM 1401 “blew ICT’s punched card machine business out of the water” in 1961-62. By 1966, the British industry was fighting a rearguard action.

Invoking the Battle of Britain

In the manner of writers from the first half of the 20th century, such as TS Eliot or HG Wells, Computer Weekly’s staff went, rather formally, by the initials of their first two names plus surname. The managing director was WE Miller, the managing editor JC Hipwell, the editor JH Bonnett, and the news editor TJ Higgins.

Computer Weekly stood up for the British computer industry against the threat of America. And it saw the country’s computer industry as helping to support British entry to the European Common Market

It seems quaintly old-fashioned, but the front-page leaders communicate the paper’s early militant ideology, which was keenly felt. There is no mistaking the anger, for instance, at Britain’s failure to modernise in this leader, from 29 December 1966: “Our economy is not a game, but a matter of life and death, part of a war which we must win.

“The place of the computer in this war has been compared by Professor Gordon Black, director of the NCC, to that of the Spitfire and Hurricane in the Battle of Britain… [But] the lack of any effective policy for the implementation of computer techniques or the manufacture of computers in this country is becoming a matter of grave concern…

“The advent of a Ministry of Technology was welcomed. At last a single body would co-ordinate our advance in the application of technology. The appointment of a younger and, one hoped, more ‘in touch’ minister was welcomed. It was a sign, a portent, of action. But here we are, still in the same state of muddle that has become traditional under governments of every creed or persuasion.”

Read more about Computer Weekly in 1966 – and 2006

In truth, the Second World War was as far away from 1966 as the dawn of the web is from today. The youthful minister in question was Tony Benn, who had taken a keen interest in computers and data processing while postmaster general.

Benn was annoyed that responsibility for the electronics industry had been transferred to the Ministry of Technology from the Post Office – at least he was on 4 April 1966, when writing his diary – but on 30 June, Wilson gave him the job of minister of technology, replacing the Transport and General Workers Union stalwart Frank Cousins, who resigned in protest at the government’s incomes policy (Tony Benn, Out of the Wilderness, Diaries 1963-67 (1987) p400 and p440). By July 1966, Benn was being lobbied by IBM, concerned at the rumours that the government was giving 25% preferment to British computers in public procurement.

Benn favoured what he called “an international computer merger, beginning with the ICT joining with English Electric which had technical computer links with RCA [in the US] and using that as a way of building up a tripartite computer consortium”, bringing in the French and Germans. He was sure Britain would dominate the European end of this, and that the Europeans would dominate the US.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, the Conservative party leader Edward Heath was quoted in Computer Weekly as advocating a more free trade approach. In the 27 October issue, Heath said there should be no “Buy British” preference, and he “would not be prepared to give protection to … computer manufacture. As a trading nation we could not afford any sort of [protective] legislation in this field”.

Sexual politics

There was also a risqué side to the early Computer Weekly. Was this a sign of the times? A lessening of the strait-laced mores of the 1950s? This racy aspect of the paper comes out especially in the cartoons and in the “Interlude” section, written by “Chad”.

The 29 September issue relates a story of a divorced 40-year-old Frenchman experimenting in New York with a computer dating service, but going back to “natural selection” when his matches failed to meet his exacting standards.

The cartoons were simply sexist, while the 6 October issue contained an advert for the Georgian Pussy Club in Mayfair, offering 20 “dining partners” for the entertainment of gentlemen at a loose end in the capital.

But did this not reflect an overwhelmingly male young profession? Well, up to a point. In an article entitled Back to work, in the 29 December 1966 issue, Paul Broadhead notes that “one quarter of the total computer personnel in the country [are] drawn from the fair sex, [meaning] the wastage due to marriage and children is considerable” – when they married, women were expected to leave full-time employment and become housewives and mothers. The article features two companies, Freelance Programmers and Freelance Work for Women, dedicated to re-employing women after marriage to work from their own homes.

And in the 17 November issue, a survey article on pay and hours says that 33% of women but only 10% of men working in IT were under 21. The article also notes that the median salary of male programmers was £1,207, up £157 since the previous survey (in Office Management), while for women there had been an increase of £57 to £879 per year, “a little surprising in a modern profession like computing”.

So, there were women in the field – 21% of the total of 1,001 in this survey – and proportionately more younger women than younger men.

Alan Turing

The cartoonist Chad was undoubtedly prone to blokeish humour – in the 10 November issue he describes Newman Street in London’s Fitzrovia district as the “Carnaby of computing”, with “the modern young ladies” of the area styled as “industrial spies in the grand tradition”. But he also submitted a more solemn and intriguing article about Alan Turing.

The computer now is no longer the tool of the scientist or the aid to the business man. It is an essential weapon in an economic struggle for existence and as such it must be used wisely and widely
Computer Weekly editor, 22 September 1966

A reader (perhaps fictional) had written in to suggest the “Turing” as a basic unit of computing power, prompting Chad to investigate this “great and unusual man”, who “went to the Foreign Office on the outbreak of war”, and was known at that time for the design of subroutines for the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) machine at the NPL (National Physical Laboratory). His piece refers to the Bletchley Bicycle – which Turing devised to stop the chain on his bike coming off after 17 pedal strokes – so either Chad or his reader knew more than they were letting on.

Computer Weekly’s editorial team of 1966 come over, from the pages of the paper, as young men on a mission: “The computer now is no longer the tool of the scientist or the aid to the business man. It is an essential weapon in an economic struggle for existence and as such it must be used wisely and widely,” says the editor in a letter of intent in the first issue on 22 September 1966.

It may have been more earnest than hip, but Computer Weekly was very much part of blazing the modernist trail in 1966.

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