Memories - A Personal History of a Cambridge Concern
This article originally written by Dave Joyner in 1994, with an additional note by Norman Sinclair-Baines from 2013.
When I left school I don't think I had ever really considered what a computer was. I certainly had not encountered any on my way through school. A couple of years later when I took a job troubleshooting for people who were preparing paper tape data for input to a computerised stock control system my awareness increased but the shroud of mystery remained. Over the next few months I was gradually introduced to a mainframe computer. There was a whole room full of it, and it appeared to run day and night and never stop. (going wrong that is.) The people who ran it, operators, had this aura of knowing exactly what they were supposed to do and yet somehow were always surprised when it worked.
When I left the stock control job, I presumed that was the last I would see of the computer. It was still the only one that existed as far as I was concerned. To my surprise only a few weeks later I was asked to call the operators. They were looking for someone to run a part time evening shift and thought I might be interested. Me!.. Interested!.. I hadn't been that interested in anything since.. well never mind that. Where was the phone book? Wait, I didn't even know the name of the place. I need Yellow Pages. Look under "Computers", there can't be many. Sure enough there were two entries. One seemed to be something to do with continuous paper and the other was "Cambridge Computer Services". I had found my vocation for the next quarter of a century.
Cambridge Computer Services, or CCS as we referred to it, was not quite two years old when I started operating. It had its own name on the bottles of milk we had delivered for cuppas on night shift. Though someone once tried to convince me CCS stood for Cambridge Cooperative Society. CCS was founded towards the end of 1966 by Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford. True blue rather than Big blue. The Colleges obviously had an agreement with the East Anglian Regional Hospital Board who were also the major customer. The computer was on their premises and, I believe, owned by them. We certainly left it with them when we moved on. (I wonder, were EARHB really 'out-sourcing' their IT?) The other major local customers of the time were Heffers, who collaborated on the design of a very successful 'CAMSALES' Sales Ledger Package, and Unicam who ran the Stock Control system that gave me my introduction. Imperial College, (London) had the most enormous job but I just cannot recall what it did.
Of Cycles and Lords
The CCS administrative offices were about half a mile away on the Milton Road. (we come back to this later). To improve efficiency, a few company bicycles were available on which the programmers would sprint between the offices to deliver input or collect compilation listings. During 1968 the colleges relinquished some control to the commercial sector in a joint agreement with McAlley Associates Ltd. This I suppose must have happened just before I joined but I may have just been too busy operating to notice. Anyway, before long, we got this new 'whiz kid' Managing Director. Someone said he was only 30! Things began to stir, there was talk of moving, and a new, bigger machine. Slow down for goodness sake, we were still recovering from adding new fangled disc drives. They were 8mb exchangables and each one was the size of a washing machine.
In March 1970 we were hurled into a brave new world. Significantly we were all working together for the first time. We had a New Building, a New Computer Room, and a New Computer. (They had the same model in the science museum last time I took the kids, and that was an age ago!) There was a grand official opening ceremony. The guest of honour, who presumably ritually cut a length of punched paper tape, was Lord R.A.B. Butler. He was very interested in some of the picture printing programs. Yes, I'm afraid we had computer games in those days too. A sales and marketing brochure of the day contained the following lines "CCS undertakes the design of special application systems and the provision of general consulting advice in the EDP (Electronic Data Processing) field. The Company also operates a computer bureau using an ICL 1903A machine."
In 1971 the average age of the 50 or so employees was only 22. This included a part time pensioner.
The pace of life was stepping up. New customers were coming in for package services and bespoke systems alike. Names such as Volvo Concessionaires were making an impression. I recall one panic run we had for them after they found a whole shipload of cars, about 200, that some one had 'mislaid in the wrong car park'. The Sales Ledger Package was growing a sister Purchase Ledger and as decimalization was just around the corner it seemed like a good idea to rewrite the 'CAMPAY' Payroll Package. Bureau payroll was big business in the 70's. There was one notable day (24hrs) when, as a result of schedule adjustments for bank holidays, we ran 134 weekly, fortnightly and monthly payrolls, gross to net, with full management reports for over 80 different customers. Today they need a TP service up for a month to run one measly 600 man payroll!
During 1972 we joined forces with Bedford Computer Services. This brought us a 'new' machine; an Elliot 803. It had 35mm film where the mag tapes ought to be, mercury switches that needed kicking to get it started and the power supply was 'smoothed' by two car batteries in the back of the processor. We ran it for years and gave it to a University or Polytechnic near Manchester when we had finished with it. Coincidentally BCS also ran work for Imperial College. Again I don't know what the job was, but one report sticks in the memory because of it's curious name. It was named after the first printed line of detail and was always called 'the Lord Penny Report'.
At some point in the early 70's we teamed up with Midland Computer Services who ran a Honeywell installation in the middle of Birmingham. We didn't really have much to do with each other, but the seeds of the 'group' concept were beginning to germinate.
Bananas and Tulips.
Just as we thought we were in control there was a change of Owner. It was January 1976, McAlley and the Colleges vanished and suddenly we were working for Geest. They of agricultural and Dutch connections. Overnight we had another member of the 'group', Eastern Computer Services who ran IBM equipment, largely for Geest, from offices in Peterborough. Collectively we were to become Geest Computer Services. The individuality of CCS was under threat.
Within a year or so another prestigious Cambridge name, Marshalls, became a customer. Geest had been busy forming relationships with Texas Instruments, big manufacturers of mini computers at the time, and Marshall's wanted that sort of computing. Until now we had only dabbled on the edge of 'communications' with rather primitive bulk data transfer. Now we were installing an interactive data network over a large part of Cambridge to give Marshalls depots access to their TI990/10 machine. The encroachment of mini computers had an interesting side effect. Several key CCS staff broke away and formed their own, very successful, computer services company based on DEC minis. Cambridge Online are still operating on the Science Park in Cambridge.
The Geest regime lasted nearly a decade. During this time the CCS name was virtually erased. We became known as Geest Computer Services - Cambridge Business Centre. There were so many comings and goings that I find it difficult to note them all in their proper chronological order.
On the machine front we spent most of 1979 upgrading the ageing 1903A to an ICL 2950. In 1980 we took over the computer division of Charringtons (Fuel merchants). They had an ICL 1902A on their premises which we closed after moving the workload to an ICL 2904 in purpose built offices in Bishops Stortford. Some of the work was later converted to run on the 2950 in Cambridge and the long association introduced major contracts with the Coalite group of companies. Another large customer of both area and era was Pitney Bowes (Harlow). They had given us the job of running down the residue of their once enormous ICL workload while they completed their transition to Sperry-Univac. This job kept the 2950 running somewhat longer than expected and even delayed the planned introduction of our second ME29. Sorry, I forgot to mention, we built the first ME29 alongside the 2950 during 1983.
In 1982 the total number of people employed since the company's formation surpassed the 300 mark.
Not all new customers precipitated major machine changes. When the Fisons group, then based in Felixstowe, decided to convert from ICL to IBM, two of their relations, FBC Ltd. and Fisons Horticultural Division opted to move their virtually identical ledger systems to the 2950 in Cambridge. Such was the scale of these systems that the transition took most of 1981 to complete. Barely pausing for breath, in January 1982 the company turned its attention to Swindon. This was a bit of a shock to the system. After being accustomed to providing bureau services to mainly local Cambridge companies and slowly spreading out over parts of East Anglia as the communications infrastructure gradually improved, how could we look after a machine full of work and customers in Wiltshire?
We had acquired Thames City Computer Services (TCCS) and, as a condition of that acquisition, were also awarded an FM contract from the parent, Linton & Hirst, to look after all their IT based on a 2904 in Stratton St Margaret, Swindon. TCCS operated a 2903 in the centre of Swindon. Both Intel and Plessey were listed among TCCS's payroll customers but this was not to influence Geest's taste in chips! (read on) It did not take long to arrange a move to offices in the premises of Linton & Hirst, and consolidate the workload of both machines on one ME29. Next door to L&H lived Howard Tennens (engine rebuilders). They ran a 2904 which, before long, we ran for them and then inevitably merged the workload onto a second ME29 in the L&H premises.
The last major change in Swindon came later, in 1985, as a result of an order placed by Bestobel Mobray who were based in Slough. In a period of just one weekend we picked up an entire ME29/45 from a competitor's site in Bristol, unloaded the Swindon machines and merged the three machines as two. There was just an ME29/37 processor left over as expected and a few other bits we never found a home for.
Meanwhile back in Cambridge, Garrod & Lofthouse (Photo Precision) of St Ives were yet another customer with an ICL 2946 machine full of work which, largely because of staff relationships and interchanges, was eventually taken over and absorbed into the ME29 workload.
As I forecast, the sequence of events is getting untidy. While some of us were busy with the mainframe tasks I just mentioned, others were exploring different avenues of computing in the Geest organisation. One of these was connected with the computer supplies market and the emergence of micro computers. By late 1981 Geest had announced its own Micro. Developed in association with NNC in California, the Geest micro was based on the Z80 8bit chip and had 64KB RAM and 8inch Winchester discs. Geest were still marketing Texas Instruments equipment and had a healthy and expanding consumable sales market.
All this activity led to the founding of The Computer Centre, which was initially formed from the merging of the supplies department operating from the Cambridge office, with the Micro/new products division of GCS. The operation was later to set up the first 'branded' Computer Centre in Trinity Court, Peterborough and continue to share premises in Cambridge. Somewhere along the line of evolution of The Computer Centre, probably around the time PCs became distinct from Micros, there was another breakaway. Four employees of Geest's Cambridge Business Centre formed Anglia Business Computers (ABC). Their business continues to operate from offices in Cambridge today.
There have been five marriages founded on relationships formed by staff employed at the same time. These couples are still together and between them have raised thirteen children.
The end of the Geest empire came in 1984 as the organisation divested itself of all non-mainstream activities and returned to what they new best, bananas and tulips. For Cambridge, including the Swindon division, the opportunity of management buy-out presented itself. By the end of 1984 it was successful. Perthcrest rose from the ashes.
Perthcrest was only a name, purchased for expedience in the formation of the new company, but it stuck. Oh! those phone calls... Who?, Earth Breast? How do you spell that? "P.E.R.T.H. as in Scotland, C.R.E.S.T. as in toothpaste" we used to say, or shout, depending on how many times we had said it that day. Some of us, less naturally gifted in the enunciation department, had trouble with 'Geest' in the early days, but nothing to compare with this.
New company, new image, new customer. In its first year of trading Perthcrest were awarded the first local government facilities management (FM) contract by Three Rivers District Council based in Rickmansworth. A significant achievement for what was, on paper, a very small and youthful company. It was also the beginning of a trend that would transform the company from a traditional supplier of bureau services for relatively local customers, to a specialist supplier of FM to both local government and the private sector.
In 1986 foundations were laid for Perthcrest House on the new Cambridge Business Park which was just off the Milton Road (I said we would come back later.) Over Christmas 1986 we moved both ME29s and the rest of the company into the 'site hut' as it was affectionately known. The name came from the building's 'corrugated iron' appearance and the fact it was, at that time, the only building on the park.
In 1987 Perthcrest acquired the fleet management division of Dillon Computing in Bristol and formed a subsidiary company, Perthcrest Tranman, to market the major product - Tranman. In 1988 Rochford District Council became Perthcrest's second Local Government FM and, later, the first to be networked. Also in 1988, Three Rivers had exhausted the capacity of their twin ME29s and began the upgrade to ICL Series 39 level 40. VME had arrived at last. The 3940 in Rickmansworth was not complete when the ME29s in Cambridge began to be replaced by a new Series 39 level 50 and even before this exercise was complete, Perthcrest had won the Lovells order. (Construction Contractors based in Gerrards Cross) For this contract it was necessary to build a second computer room to house a new Series 39 level 35 and migrate the workload from a competitor's 2966 machine.
The Cambridge operation had always produced a great deal of software, both bespoke and the 'CAM' series packages. Under Perthcrest control this area of business grew to become a supplier of software for running on the customer's own machine. Products such as PALLAS, PERAS, and MOMS were sold and distributed widely and are still supported today.
Despite good results, the tiny Perthcrest was beginning to find itself disadvantaged in the financial muscle department. Big contracts require big backing. so Perthcrest made it known that it was up for adoption. G.W. Thornton (Sheffield) were diversifying into several business areas at the time, one of which was computer services. When Thorntons became a parent, among the many siblings was a division of ACT who were supplying banking services from machines based in Bristol and Sheffield. Apart from some integrated training courses which introduced staff to each other there seemed to be little or no interaction between the two computer sections. Within two years Thornton's strategies had changed and Perthcrest found itself in need of a new parent.
June 1st 1990. Enter BIS, a consortium of European companies perhaps most well known for their Training and Banking Systems. The whole show was owned by the giant U.S. based Nynex Corporation who are a sort of BT for the east coast of the States. Nynex were apparently seeking a foothold in Europe to develop their interests in cable television and BIS already had the entry qualifications. During the reign of BIS the company name changed yet again, this time to BIS Perthcrest. The Cambridge operation ran, as it does today, networked FMs for Three Rivers D.C., Rochford D.C., Spelthorne B.C., Carmarthen D.C. and Associated Newspapers Ltd. Still with machines on site but managed through contracts with the Cambridge centre are Woodspring D.C. (A Bull site in Weston-super-mare) and Breckland D.C. (An ICL site in Thetford - on one occasion referred to by the computer press as "that sleepy little village near Norwich".)
The Final Act.
In June 1993 Nynex sold BIS to the ACT group. Not the same ACT that had been our sister company just a few years earlier, but another ACT, again with strong interests in Computer Services and Financial Systems. This was a new situation, we had acquired a new grandparent. It was probably the first time in the history of the company when it had no direct influence on its own destiny. This really was the beginning of the end of 'Cambridge' as an autonomous unit. ACT quickly and efficiently enveloped BIS and Perthcrest identities. We became ACT Managed Services, joining forces with other elements of the organisation to whom we were first introduced while under BIS control.
Before the end of 1994, ACT will transfer the machines in Cambridge to an established data centre in Nantwich (Cheshire). Shortly after this the Cambridge office will close. Whilst this follows a course of undeniably sound corporate logic, the Cambridge based staff are apprehensively contemplating their future as commuters to the new head office and operations bridge being set up in Hemel Hempstead. Closing the Cambridge office will end just over 25 years of frantic activity which has seen the original purpose of the company mutate almost beyond recognition. With it will go a small fragment of what was once referred to as "The Cambridge Phenomenon". A few of us will remember it for the rest of our lives.
Dave Joyner. Dec. 1994.
An ainteresing additional note has been sent to us relating to this article which we show below:
"I worked for Bedford Computer Services between 1968 and 1969 as an analyst programmer. BCS was owned by the Ormerod family, J.A. Ormerod was a JP in Bedford. I remember Peter Dutton, John Hird, Max Dean, and an Australian marketing manager called Colin (who could not remember Colin?). At that time they already owned Midland Computer Services which had its offices on the Ringway, Birmingham BCS had 2 old Elliot 803s but the main computer was a Honeywell H200, running 4 tape drives, (no disk yet) and working in COBOL. I often travelled to Birmingham to run compilations and test runs when there was not enough capacity on the Bedford computer.
The “work” for Imperial College was a study in heuristics being done by Malcolm Alden and Mel Bass. Us guys doing commercial work were always wondering what exactly they were doing as money went in but nothing seemed to come out.
Some Customers Past and Present
ALBANY TRAVEL (Ipswich)
AMEY ROADSTONE (Bristol)
ANDY'S RECORDS (Cambridge)
ANTHES UNIVERSAL (?)
ARC CONCRETE (Cambridge)
ASSOCIATED FISHERIES (?)
ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS (Kensington)
STEPHEN AUSTIN NEWSPAPERS (Hertford)
SYDNEY BANKS (Sandy)
BARWELL RUBBER (Swavesey)
BEROL (Kings Lynn)
BESTOBEL MOBRAY (Slough)
BIBBY ENGINEERING (?)
BLACKWELLS BOOKSHOP (?)
BOARD PRODUCTS (?)
BOWES & BOWES (Cambridge)
BROOKE MARINE (Lowestoft)
BROWN BROS (Swindon)
BURRAGE & BOYD (Bedford)
CAD CENTRE (Cambridge)
CAMBRIDGE EVENING NEWS
CAMBRIDGE UNITED FOOTBALL CLUB
CAMBRIDGE WATER COMPANY
CAMBS. COLLEGE OF ARTS & TECHNOLOGY
CARAVAN INTERNATIONAL (Newmarket)
CECIL INSTRUMENTS (Milton)
CHARRINGTON FUEL OILS (B.Stortford)
CHARRINGTON SOLID FUELS (B.Stortford)
CHURCHILL COLLEGE (Cambridge)
RICHARD CLAY (Beccles)
Wm. CLOWES (Bungay)
COALITE BUILDING SUPPLIES (Nottingham)
COX & WYMAN (Bungay)
CREWE & NANTWICH D.C.
CROMWELL TOOLS (Cambridge)
CYCLES PEUGEOT (Wellingborough)
DALGETY FOODS (Bigglewade)
DANISH BACON (Welwyn G C)
PETER DANN (Cambridge)
DOM HOLDINGS (Royston)
DUMBLETON STUDIOS (Cambridge)
EAST ANGLIAN REGIONAL HOSPITAL BOARD
EASTERN COUNTIES LEATHER (Chelmsford)
EASTERN COUNTIES FARMERS (Sawston)
ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING (?)
ELECTRICAL INSTALLATIONS (Cambridge)
ESSEX CHRONICLE (Chelmsford)
FISONS HORTICULTURAL (Bramford)
FOREST HEATH D.C.
FOSTER REFRIGERATION (Kings Lynn)
FREELAND KOTSCHY (?)
FREEMAN INSULATION (?)
GARROD & LOFTHOUSE (Crawley)
W.R. GRACE (St Neots)
GUILD SOUND & VISION (?)
H.R.P. SALES (Bury St Edmunds)
HAMECH MANUFACTURING (?)
HH ELECTRONICS (Bar Hill)
HILLE AUDITORIUM (Warrington)
HILLE INTERNATIONAL (Haverhill)
HOWARD TENENS (Swindon)
IMPERIAL COLLEGE (London)
INDUSTRIAL CONTROL SERVICES (?)
INITIAL SERVICES (Cambridge)
INT. FLAVOURS & FRAGRANCES (Haverhill)
J. H. JACKS. (?)
J.E.B. ENGINEERING (Mildenhall)
J.W.Q TRANSPORT (Swindon)
JOHNSON MATTHEY (Royston)
KERSHAW HEATING (Cambridge)
KEYLINE (Kings Lynn)
KIDMAN & SONS (?)
KINGS LYNN D.C.
KNOPP ELECTRONICS (?)
KURT GEIGER (London)
ESTEE LAUDER (Peterfield)
LEX BROOKLANDS (Ipswich)
LEYS SCHOOL (Cambridge)
LINTON & HIRST (Swindon)
LORD RAYLEIGHS FARMS (Essex)
LOTUS CARS (Hethel)
Y.J. LOVELL (Gerrards Cross)
MATTHEW HALL (London)
ANDREW McCOLLOCH (Cambridge)
MECCA ENTERTAINMENTS (Stevenage)
NATIONAL CARRIERS LTD
NODE MANAGEMENT SERVICES (?)
NORTH WEST WATER (Warrington)
NORVIC SHOES (Norwich)
PATRICK & GRAINGER (Cambridge)
PAULS & WHITES (Ipswich)
PETERBOROUGH DEVELOPMENT CORP.
P.H.H. INTERNATIONAL (?)
PHOTO PRECISION (St Ives)
W. PINDER & SONS (?)
PITNEY BOWES (Harlow)
PLATINOF & HARRIS (?)
PORVAIR (Kings Lynn)
PREMIER TRAVEL (Cambridge)
PYE UNICAM (Cambridge)
QUALITY FRESH FOODS (?)
RANDALL ELECTRONICS (Haverhill)
REED CORRUGATED CASES (Histon)
REPRODUCTION RESEARCH (Cambridge)
OLIVER RIX (?)
ROBINSON COLLEGE (Cambridge)
ROLA CELESTION (?)
S & S ENGINEERING (Leiston)
SAREK JOINERY (?)
S & B COMMERCIALS (?)
SENIOR ENGINEERING (?)
SHELVOKE & DREWRY (Letchworth)
SINCLAIR (St Ives)
DAVID SMITH (St Ives)
SOUTH KESTEVEN D.C.
SPICERS (Sawston& Ledbury)
SPILLERS MILLING (Cambridge)
St EDMUNDS BACON FACTORY
STRUTT & PARKER (Lewes)
STUDIO SCHOOL (Cambridge)
SURREY HEATH D.C.
TEXTILE BONDINGS (Higham Ferrars)
THREE RIVERS D.C.
TRAVENOL LABORATORIES (Thetford)
VAN MELLE (Bury St Edmunds)
VIDEO BOX OFFICE (?)
VOLVO CONCESSIONAIRES (Ipswich)
WALDEN PRECISION (Linton)
WARD BLENKINSOP (Bedford)
WILLHIRE (Barton Mills)
WYSEPLANT (St Neots)