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Alan Sercombe: Interview, 23 July 2014 50623

 Home > LEO Computers > LEOPEDIA > Oral & Narrative Histories > Alan Sercombe: Interv ... w, 23 July 2014 50623

Alan Sercombe and Leo Computers Society

Digital audio of a recorded interview with Alan Sercombe who worked as a programmer on LEO II/8 at Standard Motors before moving to Australia to open the Shell office in Melbourne.

Interviewer: John Hoey
Date of interview: 23 July 2014
Length of recording: 2h46m24s
Copyright in recording content: Alan Sercombe and the LEO Computers Society
Summary of Transcript editor: Alan Sercombe, May 2017
Brian Mills DOB: 1934
Joined LEO: 1959

Abstract: Alan received degree in mathematics and after National Service joined Armstrong Siddeley as a programmer on a Ferranti Mark I. The company’s merger with another aircraft manufacturer led to his leaving and joining LEO. He worked on the LEO II at Standard Motors, but in 1963 joined Peter Gyngell in Australia working with a number of LEO computers sold in Australia and later with EELM and then ICL; finishing his career in 1996 as a very senior member of the successor companies working in an administrative and legal capacity.

Date : 23rd July 2014

Physical Description : 2 digital files, audio

Transcript :

Summary of Interview:
Alan Sercombe

On 23rd July, 2014 Alan Sercombe was interviewed by John Hoey as part of the LEO Computer Society’s Oral Histories program.  This document is an edited version of part of the transcript of that interview.

My early computers
In January 1958 I joined Armstrong Siddeley Motors as a computer programmer.  They had a Ferranti Mark 1* computer (a scientific computer) a development of the Manchester University machine.  It was interesting work, a problem to solve, and that's why I enjoyed it.  The first hiccup came when the aero engine division of Armstrong Siddeley merged with Bristol Aero.  It was obvious that we were the minor party of the merger/takeover.  I couldn't see a long term future.

At about that time (1959) I saw an ad in the local paper from LEO Computers, seeking programmers in Coventry.  I applied and I went down to London for an interview.  The interview turned out to be an all-day session.  There was quite a group of us, I think probably about fifteen or so.  We were given a short lecture then a test paper to see if we really understood what it was about.  It took most of the morning.  After a break for lunch a somewhat reduced set of people went through the same sort of process again, rather more complicated, like a very simple programme language, of moving numbers around boxes.  After another two-hour session we were given afternoon tea and then a small number, I think it was down to three or four of us, were asked to stay for formal interviews.  I was interviewed by David Caminer, who was a senior manager with LEO, then by David Bell, who I learnt was the executive in charge of the computer data processing operations of the Standard Motor Company.  I got offered a job, which I accepted, and immediately started a four-week programming course to learn programming for the LEO II computer.

Following the programming course I was attached to a team of LEO Service Bureau programmers to hone my skills under the guidance of LEO senior programmers.  I worked on a programme for Lightning Zip Fasteners, which was a bureau customer of LEO at the time. 

After probably four to six weeks I was transferred back to Coventry and appointed senior programmer of what was to be a team of six programmers, and started working with the systems analyst attached to Standard on developing the systems and programmes necessary to achieve Standard’s first system, stock control of the component parts that make up a car.

In 1960 the computer, which was LEO II/8, was delivered to Standard in Coventry.  Leo II/8 was the first LEO II with core memory, earlier models used mercury delay-lines.  Also I think it was the first LEO that had some transistors as well as valves.  The car production line at Standard worked on what was known as an ‘open store’ basis.  Deliveries of most parts were made directly to the production line.  The problem was how you keep track of what's used, what comes in, and what other things happen in a major manufacturing operation.  The suite of programmes that was designed for this had punch cards as input.  Standard had a quite large punch card facility for use at that time, mainly for accounting purposes.

When we started writing these programmes a programmer from LEO was sent up to Coventry.  As part of the deal a number of hours of systems and programming time were to be supplied by LEO.  There were a number of hours left over which weren’t really required for anything else so to work them out a programmer called Neil Lamming was sent to Coventry for I think three or four weeks to work out the remaining hours helping us with our programming.  I wasn't to know that Neil would have quite an influence on my life and future with LEO. 

The merger bug hit again and Standard Triumph were being taken over by Leyland Motors.  Leyland were based in Manchester, the other place that I could have started my computing career but chose Coventry instead.  They were an IBM shop, very much so, and again we were the junior partner.  Again I decided that my future was no longer with Standard so started looking for a further position which took quite a long time.  By this time I was the data processing manager responsible for the programming, operations and the punch card equipment with a staff of about thirty-five.  I approached LEO and spoke with Frank Land.  Frank was the account representative for Standard Triumph and who we dealt with if there were any problems.  I told him what my problem was and he introduced me to numerous LEO customers or, more often than not, potential customers.  I hadn't had any success when towards the end of 1962 there was an ad in the national papers from LEO looking for programmers in Australia.
I wasn't looking at that stage for a programming job but I approached Frank and said ‘Has Australia got a job for me there?'  This must have been in probably late November ’62.  I went to London for an interview in December ’62 with T R Thompson, the then Managing Director.  The interview went well. I had a phone call from Frank just before Christmas, ‘Was I going to take the job?’  My reply was ‘What job?’  The job offer was stuck in the Christmas mail.  I joined LEO at the start of February, and immediately started a four-week course to learn about LEO III. 
 During the course the announcement was made that LEO was merging with English Electric, which was the rumour that at my interview in December was scotched as being groundless.

Move to Australia
One of the reasons that I accepted the job was because I’d heard that Neil Lamming was going to Australia in January.  When I was at LEO for the interview I met with him and asked “what do you know about Australia, what do you think about it?’  We had quite a chat and he gave me a bit of advice, he said ‘They'll want to send you out by plane. We managed to talk our way out of that and suggest you do the same’. 

I took that advice and the company agreed to it.  I sailed on the 5th or 6th of March. There was still snow on the ground in southern England that had commenced in mid-December, one of the longest, snowiest winters in years.  The boat was the Southern Cross of the Shaw Saville Line.  The boat did four around the world cruises a year, sometimes one way around, sometimes the other.  I was lucky, it went via Panama.  Through the West Indies, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, and Fiji.  The mid-point of the cruise was Wellington, New Zealand, for a three days’ stop.  Then to Sydney arriving on Easter Saturday 1963 at Woolloomooloo, and was met by Neil Lamming and his wife Pat.  They looked after me very well for a weekend.  Took me on the Monday to the Sydney Royal Easter Show, this was Bank Holiday Monday.  I saw things that I'd never seen before, wood chopping, and other country activities.  But the day didn't go quite as planned.  My new boss was going to be a Peter Gyngell who headed up the small team, I think, of either eight or nine in Sydney.  That was all that consisted of the LEO Australian operation at that time, all based in Sydney.  A LEO III had been sold to Tubemakers of Australia, not yet delivered but it was to be LEO III/8.

I was due to meet with Peter Gyngell on that Easter Monday night and learn about what I was going to be doing of which I had heard a fair amount from Neil.  Peter had loaned Neil his wife’s car for the weekend to partly entertain me and show me round.  We were parked outside the showgrounds for the Royal Easter Show but when we came to leave the car wouldn't start.  It took a long time for the NRMA, the service organisation, to arrive and get us on our way.  That meant I was approximately one hour late turning up for my first meeting, for dinner prepared by his wife, with Peter Gyngell.  

Move to Melbourne
The next day, Easter Tuesday, I flew down to Melbourne as my job was to open an office in Melbourne and act as consultant to The Shell Company, which had been sold a LEO III.  On the Wednesday Peter Gyngell came down to introduce me to Shell and its data processing manager, Cec Lockhart.  Also to the manager of the English Electric office, which happened to be across the road from the Shell building.

The only English Electric computer at that time in Australia was a KDF9 at Sydney University (supervised by Mick Norsa of English Electric), the only computer system on either side of the fence, English Electric or LEO, in Australia.  I was allocated an office in the English Electric building and one in the Shell building, but I spent most of my time at Shell.  Cec Lockhart was the manager, Bill Cheek operations, Chester Jones programming and Neil Smith systems.

My first task at Shell was a recruiting and training.  Shell had a corporate policy to where possible recruit and train from within the company.  They were initially seeking programmers.  I ran selection sessions using the ‘Quiz Test’, a shorter version of the procedure I went through when I was being recruited for the Standard Triumph LEO II.  From memory the instructions instead of being a lecture were a document followed by a test, which was ten questions.  We used this procedure in Australia to recruit staff and with the co-operation of Shell, to select the six initial programmers, who all came from within Shell.  Subsequently, when it came to selecting operators they decided that they had denuded the internal resources as far as they could so asked LEO to provide the initial operating team.  

Shell as corporate policy was very insistent on good training for all their staff and in the first twelve months I ran courses for all the branch accountants and many other Shell staff.  These were conducted jointly with Shell staff, particularly Cec Lockhart, to inform them what a computer was all about and what it was going to do for them in the future.  Also, to my great surprise, we had the whole of the Shell Australia Board of Directors for two days, giving them, again, a potted computer course and an introduction to the sort of systems that were going to be put on to the computer for the ultimate benefit of the bottom line of Shell.  I’ve never come across that sort of training anywhere else.  They were a very interesting bunch.  Besides recruiting and training programmers we were getting stuck into developing Shell’s systems.  

John Myers, who had some computer systems experience with Shell in the UK had been seconded to Shell Australia to help them.  Unfortunately, as I also found, Australians are not very keen on taking advice from outside.  He was having a bit of a hard time.  As the number of ex-patriots coming out to join the LEO team in Australia grew he very much socialised with us rather than with Shell staff.  I found a way to get my own way in discussions on systems development.  I would float an idea which normally got a mixed reception.  Then come out with some reasons why it wasn't such a good idea.  I would wait for the idea to germinate and come back as their suggestion.  I've found throughout my time in Australia that it’s not only that the Australians didn't like experts coming from overseas dictating to them.  It was a State thing, a rivalry between the States.  If a New South Wales Government department had a computer system then the corresponding department in Victoria would no way install the same system.

We trained Shell’s initial programming team but it was obvious that more programmers were needed than could be sourced internally from Shell.  We were asked to provide some senior programmers who had to come from the UK.  The first two that came out were Mike Shapcott and Robin Happe.  We always met ex-patriots at the airport when they arrived in Melbourne.  Mike who was married and had a young child came by air via America with a stopover.  Subsequently, mainly at the insistence of Shell, most others who came out came as ‘ten pounds poms’, under the ten-pound scheme for immigrants to come to Australia.  Robin came as a ‘ten pound pom’, came via Sydney and was not met at Sydney.  I remember receiving a call from Peter Gyngell saying ‘Turn out a big welcome at Melbourne Airport’ for a very unhappy Robin. 

The Growth in LEO Support in Melbourne
To provide some programming assistance Neil Lamming who came out three or four months before me and based in Sydney was relocated to Melbourne.  I was acting as systems consultant to Shell and he was acting as the chief programmer.  I was working alongside Neil Smith from Shell.  Neil was working alongside Chester Jones.  It became obvious we needed more programmers.  We started recruiting locally for people to help install Shell.  We were building up staff quite rapidly.  In 1964 after the machine, LEO III/XV, was delivered to Shell we provided the operators. Once Shell started getting into production programmes the programming team built up well over a dozen people.  LEO probably had more than ten programmers who had been recruited and trained.  Engineers were recruited and trained locally as well.

With the arrival later in ’64 of the second LEO III into Melbourne delivered to The Colonial Mutual Life Association (CML) more staffed joined from the UK.  Geoff Nicholas to take the chief programming job for CML.  Barry Hooper a LEO man was employed by Shell.  David Jones and Robert Timms came out a bit later.  Clive Harrison came out on the operating side and engineers as well. 

Wallace Weaving arrived to do the equivalent job at CML that I was doing in Shell.  The same sort of exercise was gone through to recruit and train programmers. The CML machine was installed later in 1964.  Towards the end of ’64 into ’65, we were starting to build up staff outside of those seconded to Shell and CML for our own operations.  Part of the deal with both Shell and CML was for us to buy back time from them for our own use.  For example, the Shell machine was used to do the initial testing of CML programmes before their machine was installed.  The initial programming of Shell systems were tested on the Tubemakersl machine.  Programs were sent up by air overnight, run and came back the next morning.  LEO started selling computer time on a bureau basis initially by Peter Gyngell then by Wallace Weaving.  This was with a view to getting companies using the LEO bureau service and subsequently moving them on to a full system.  During this period we were merging with the English Electric computer staff, which at that time only consisted of three.  Mick Norsa, John O’Neil who went on to be a senior manager at Control Data Corporation (CDC), and the third one was Owen McKenzie.  

Owen McKenzie, at that time was a fairly new recruit to English Electric and had been sent to England to learn all about the KDF9 at Kidsgrove.  He extended his stay in England to include learning about LEO.  When he returned to Australia he came to Melbourne and was involved very much with CML.  This left Wallace Weaving free to do more on the sales side looking for business in Melbourne and into South Australia, in Adelaide, and Canberra to the Federal Government.

English Electric Leo Marconi (EELM) and the Computer Bureau
English Electric LEO then became English Electric LEO Marconi. The only sale from Owen’s activities was a KDF6 to HC Sleigh, a rival petrol distributor to Shell.  

Shell was getting busier and busier; the LEO bureau was beginning to get a bit more business.  Shell went to two shifts, and the bureau used the night shift.  Later Shell went to three shifts and I think CML was on two shifts.  So our bureau time became a permanent night shift at CML.  John Hoey was the senior operator with Brian Cadell.  As I was the responsible person in Melbourne for these staff who we never saw because they were on permanent night shift, I occasionally would roll in to CML after midnight to check up how they were getting on and have a chat.

We all got on well with the English Electric staff and we socialised together.  At one stage a joint social club was formed and I remember there was a golf afternoon on one occasion.  

Australian Computers
A joint company between the Australian arm of EELM and a major Australian electronics company, Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Limited (AWA), named Australian Computers was formed.  AWA started in 1909 and had previously had some computer operations.  I think AWA had a forty percent interest and EELM sixty percent.  AWA instigated the first radio transmissions between England and Australia.  They manufactured electronic equipment including traffic signals, marine equipment, radios and TVs.  They designed and built the first video units in Australia to a government specification.  It was so over specified that in due course it got too expensive when imports became available.  Australian Computers continued until ICT merged with English Electric to form ICL.  ICT was quite big in Australia with offices in five or six states and Canberra whereas we were only in Sydney and Melbourne with activities in the other states done from those two bases.  As our commitments to Shell and CML were phasing off, and after Australian Computers was formed, we moved out of the English Electric building into new offices in St. Kilda Road.  There was myself, as branch manager in Melbourne with responsibility for most activities apart from sales. Wallace Weaving and Neil Lamming were very much in the sales area and Geoff Nicholas was looking after programming and the technical side.

System Four
(John Hoey) The System Four arrived for Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), in about 1968 or nine at a guess.  A bureau shift was run there.

After System Four was announced I was sent over to England for three months to learn all about the programming and operational aspects of System Four.  I flew with Wallace Weaving who was going over there to find out the sales side of System Four.  He returned much sooner than I did.  I returned just before the launch, which was going to be a world-wide event on the same day.  The problem was that the sales literature, brochures, etc. were all running late.  There was also going to be a publicity film which was going to be used at the launch, also running late.  At that time India and Pakistan were at war and flights to Australia were going via Colombo rather than India.  It was a longer flight which meant higher fuel loads.  It wasn't the passengers that got offloaded, it was cargo.  There were worries that the literature and film wouldn't get there in time for the launch if sent as cargo so I was given the job of bringing it all back as my personal luggage. For six or seven days, as the as the brochures weren’t ready, I cancelled my flight late afternoon and rebooked it for the next day.  

Finally I was told that somebody would come out to the airport with the brochures.  I was waiting in the check in area and was asked ‘Are you going to check in?’  I said, ‘Well, not at the moment, I'm waiting for some luggage to come’. ‘Oh, the flight is closing you must check in now’, I said ‘Well in which case I’ll won't be travelling, I’ll rebook for tomorrow’.  Then fifteen minutes later two men came running in carrying a number of boxes, the final stuff for me to take back.  They were dumped on the scales together with my luggage which was fairly extensive because I'd acquired a lot of literature in the three months I’d been in England.  The check in girl’s face dropped, it was about a thousand pounds sterling in excess baggage.

I boarded and the plane, a Boeing 707, and took off.  The last stop before getting to Sydney was Darwin in the Northern Territory, in the north of Australia.  There was obviously something wrong when we were landing because on either side of the runway as we taxied there were fire engines and ambulances.  Apparently one of our engines was out.  We disembarked and went into the terminal.  Even though it was the middle of winter in Darwin it was still very hot with no air conditioning in the terminal.  We’d been flying for a very long time and we sat waiting all day.  I think we had arrived about six o'clock in the morning, and it was about five o'clock in the afternoon when they told us that we weren’t going to take off, because the crew had run out of flying hours.

They put us through Customs.  That caused a bit of a problem because in those days Australia had very rigid control over films and I was bringing in a film.  I was expecting to be met by a Customs agent when I got to Sydney who would clear this film but here I was in Darwin with a film.  I thought ‘I've got to declare it’.  I told them that it was a promotional film for a new computer system.  This now was Friday and the launch was on the Tuesday.  We talked over that and he said ‘we've got to take it off you and vet it to make sure it doesn't contain anything that Australia doesn't want’.  I explained that it was for a worldwide launch on Tuesday and we really needed the film.  After thinking he said ‘Would it be tools of the trade?’  I replied ‘Yes, I think that's right’.  He said ‘Okay, tools of the trade, off you go’. 

We were put into motels overnight and I think it was about eleven o'clock the next morning we took off and finally landed in Sydney late afternoon.  I had been in touch with Peter Gyngell and had explained that I had cleared the film so wouldn’t need a Customs agent to meet me.  I got back to Melbourne late Saturday evening with all the brochures and the film.  Went into the office a bit late on the Monday morning.

Waiting for me was an urgent message, I had to contact Sydney because I’d got a film and the Customs were after it.  Apparently as a ‘belt and braces’ another copy of the film had been sent.  I'm not sure how they sent it and a Customs agent cleared it through Customs on the same basis that I’d used; that it was for promotional purposes at the launch and that they could have the copy that I was bringing in to check.  So I had to rush my copy to Sydney so that Customs could have it.  In the end, all went well on the day, the film was there, the brochures were there, but the customs problem was an interesting aside.

ICL Computer Bureau
In April 1968 it was announced that ICT was merging with (taking over?) EELM forming International Computers Limited (ICL).  ICT was represented in all states; they ran computer service bureau in all states.  At that time I was running the Melbourne bureau for Australian Computers with just a single night shift on the CML LEO machine.  ICT had a large bureau operation in Melbourne, much bigger than mine.  In merging the operations of the two companies there was not room for two bureau managers in Melbourne.  I lost out and in October1968, the start of ICL’s financial year, I was transferred to run the Adelaide bureau for ICL. The previous manager who was in his last year before retiring was seconded to head up the organising team for the conference and exhibition of The Australian Computer Society to be held in Adelaide the following year.  This left a vacancy for me fill.

I went to the ICL Adelaide office towards the end of September.  It was the day before an ICL computer centre manager’s conference to be held there the next day.  I remember the day well, it was the 20th of September 1968.  After a briefing from the existing manager I was introduced to my staff in the Adelaide bureau.  Amongst the programming staff was a programmer whose thirtieth birthday was that day.  I was able to wish her a happy birthday, which quite surprised her.  It was quite a momentous day because about three years later I married her. (John Hoey: What a good idea, and what a lovely lady you married too).

It was only a visit for two or three days to get the feel of the office and Adelaide, and find some accommodation.  I took over on the first working day in October.  I can't remember which system was in the bureau, but I think it was an ICT 1902 or 1903.  It was quite a small one compared with the LEO bureau.  I settled in, recruiting staff again and doing more training.  Of course, I had to do some learning about ICT equipment, or ICL equipment as it was then.  That was the end of my direct connection with LEO, from then on it was ICL. The organisation of ICL in each state was a sales manager, an engineering manager and a bureau manager, all reporting up to corresponding managers in head office. 

ICL Marketing Group
Three years after I'd gone to Adelaide ICL had another major reorganisation where branch managers were going to be installed in each branch.  Basically the sales manager was being made the branch manager, with the bureau and engineering managers as direct reports and only a dotted line reporting to the bureau and engineering head office managers.  As a result of this reorganisation Owen McKenzie was appointed the branch manager in Adelaide and I was asked to move to Sydney into a brand new section being set up as a marketing group under Richard Cross, who was previously the head office manager of the bureau organisation.  It so happened that when this announcement was made it was approximately two weeks before my wedding to Jan, the girl I met on her thirtieth birthday.  We’d bought a house, we hadn't moved in.

It was Melbourne Cup Day when I was asked to move to Sydney.  Jan was in Melbourne for Melbourne Cup week which was a four day race meeting, Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.  Cup Day was the Tuesday and a public holiday in Melbourne, not in any other state.  For a number of years Jan had been going to Melbourne for the whole of the race week with her best friend and she wasn't cancelling that for a wedding.  That was why our wedding was at the end of November rather than at the beginning.  I decided that I had to break this news to her in person so I drove down to Melbourne on Wednesday evening.  I arranged to meet her for lunch then go to the races with her.  We were having lunch at the RACV Club which is when I broke the news to her.  But we never got to the races.

Anyway, it all worked out; I managed to put off the actual move to Sydney until the end of March whilst having to visit Sydney several times and also once to Tasmania.  The marketing task I was given was to investigate and produce some plans for marketing to the mining operations in Australia.  ICT had already got an installation with a major mining company, Mount Isa Mines in outback Queensland.  The marketing group was set up to try and leverage off their existing customers into markets.  We moved to Sydney in April.  There was another reorganisation the following September and I was asked to move to Brisbane.  We had just moved into the house we’d bought in Sydney so that's when I finally parted company from the organisation that I joined nine and a half years before in 1963.  

Edited by Alan Sercombe, May 2017

Provenance :
Recording made by the LEO Computers Society as part of their ongoing oral history project.

Archive References : CMLEO/LS/AV/SERCOMBE-20140723 , DCMLEO20220803003-004

Related Topics:
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH50623. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

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