|Home > LEO Computers > LEOPEDIA > Oral & Narrative Histories > Mike Thompson: Interv ... h December 2017 70217
Mike Thompson: Interview, 6th December 2017 70217
|Home > LEO Computers > LEOPEDIA > Oral & Narrative Histories > Mike Thompson: Interv ... h December 2017 70217
Mike Thomson and LEO Computers Society
Digital audio of a recorded interview with Mike Thompson, who worked as an operator on LEO III/1, later training other operators.
Interviewer: Elisabetta Mori
Transcript editor: unknown
Abstract: Joined LEO Computers in 1962 as an operator on LEO III/1 and later trained other operators, staying through the various mergers until moving to work for Diebold Corporation. After spending 3 years in Zambia, returned to working on LEO III/4 for London Boroughs as a manager in Systems and Programming.Date : 6th December 2017
Physical Description : 1 digital file, audio
Mike Thompson (MT) interview 6th December 2017 Interviewed by Elisabetta Mori (EM) Mike Thompson – The Trainer’s Story EM Good morning Mike MT Good morning. Early Days EM I would like to start from when and where you were born? If you can tell me also a little bit about your family, if you had any brothers or sisters, what was the occupation of your father, of your mother, and any early memories you would like to share with us? MT I was born in Maidstone in Kent on September 17th 1941. My mother was a housewife for most of her life and my father was a radiator repairman who worked from the age of fourteen until he retired at that same job. For schooling, I started in primary school, I was still four years old, because we started in school at the beginning of September and I was five on the 17th so, you know, I was about a year early all the way through my education. At the age of ten I passed what was then called the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination and, together with one other person from the school that I was at, we went to the local grammar school and there studied through to ‘O’ Levels. I was also in the Combined Cadet Force and worked with the Territorial Army because we had formed a signals group in our section as our local Territorial Army didn't have any signals. Then I went on to take ‘A’ Levels in the scientific area. After I finished school, I applied for and got a job in a testing lab’ at a local paper manufacturer. EM But I would like to know a little more about what your expectations were when you were a student. Why did you choose the grammar school? Was it your choice? MT Oh no, if you passed the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination you went, and very few people went on, to grammar school. I think the year that I went in there it was something like about a hundred and ten people out of the total population of eleven year olds in Maidstone. EM Did you have any brothers or sisters? MT I had a sister who went through what was then a secondary modern school. She left school at the age of sixteen and had various jobs, mostly clerical. Back in those days women certainly didn't do anything in the way of management! EM And what was the job you wanted to do when you were a child? What was your dream job? MT I didn't really have a dream job. I tried a whole lot of things. I was a good mechanic. There were quite a lot of things that I could have done, it just happened that, you know, having taken the ‘A’ Levels, science ‘A’ Levels, it seemed likely that I could go on to a job with science background, or a science job. The Reed Paper Group The Reed Paper Group was the large employer, and as it turned out I was only in the testing lab for a relatively short time before I moved on to running factory trials which included negotiating with unions and the management. During some of these trials we caused a tremendous amount of waste and so the workers were on an incentive programme. They got paid if we produced high quantity, whereas if there was a mess made they then went back down to their sort of lowest rate of pay. So, we eventually negotiated a very good agreement on that. It was very useful, that time, in being able to negotiate with unions. EM At the time had you already heard about computers? MT Not at that point. You know, we’re talking 1959/1960, computers weren't generally known. I eventually moved on to the research department in The Reed Paper Group. and it just happened that I developed into doing a lot of the photography including high speed cine. And this was where you sped up the normal speed of sixteen millimetre film which was about sixteen frames a second. If you went to a hundred and sixty and then played it back at the sixteen you could see things that you wouldn't otherwise see. We had a camera that could actually go up to about two hundred times the normal speed, so a hundred feet of film went very rapidly. It reached the point where the research group and other people in The Reed Paper Group decided that they needed to have a professional photographer and an assistant. So they advertised and they found the professional but were still looking for the assistant, so I applied for the job. I was told, ‘sorry you can't have the assistant’s job because you don't have any photographic qualifications’! I got up and was about to leave the office and the person who was the head of the research group said, ‘by the way, Mr Thompson, the professional has no experience with high speed cine, you will have to teach him’! At that point I resigned on the spot! I was also making more money than I was on my regular salary from playing in a band, playing jazz. EM So we are talking about which year? When did you resign? MT That was 1962. EM And where were you living at the time? MT I was living in Maidstone. Traditional Jazz and LEO Looking through the, I think it was The Telegraph newspaper, I saw the advert from LEO for operators and programmers and was invited up to London and do the aptitude test. EM So, let me understand, you resigned from the paper job. You kept on playing with your band. MT For a while, yes. EM So how many years were you the professional musician? MT That, I stopped about two or three months after I got the job at LEO because I was on shift work and that didn't work very well with playing regularly in a band. EM What kind of music and which instrument did you play? MT I played double bass, and this was traditional jazz, Louie Armstrong in his earlier days, so, you know, that was fun. The LEO aptitude test, if you got seventy per cent or more you became a programmer. If you got, I think it was sixty to seventy per cent you were recruited as an operator. EM So you read about LEO on a newspaper and at the time did you ... MT I just applied. EM Was it the first time you heard about computers when you read about this? MT Yes. That was the first time. The interview, or the aptitude test, took place at Hartree House, which was above Whiteleys store. I got sixty nine per cent on seven questions. EM Do you remember what the questions were? MT No. I may, somewhere, I've got to start digging through some of my old boxes of papers. I may actually have one copy of the aptitude test because I later used it in Zambia and in Kenya, and later on some occasions here in the United States. EM So you used the test that you took at LEO again in your other following jobs? MT In the following jobs, yes. It was good for finding programmers. For instance, at that time, to become a programmer with IBM you had to have a first class Master’s Degree. They had a fairly considerable number of failures with programmers that they'd recruited; in that they didn't work very well. EM So, let me recap, you read in the newspaper about this job at LEO. You take the aptitude test, went to London. And what happens next? Do you remember who was there? Do you remember any of the people that interviewed for the job? MT No, they were pretty much nameless. One interesting little thing was that they would come in and call a person out by name and one at a time, and there was a whole group of these people. EM How many were you? MT There was probably something like about twenty of us in the room at the time. We sat there as people were called out, and apparently what they did was they called out the people who had failed the aptitude test first so that they could inform them outside the room that they had failed and hence weren't being recruited. I was one of three people left in the room, one operator, the other two were programmers, or became programmers. It was an interesting way of recruiting. Instead of pulling out just the winners first and then walking in and saying, ‘you've all lost’, they took each of the losers out one at a time and anybody left in the room would think they must be, you know, selecting and going on. They wouldn't make somebody look bad. EM After the aptitude test what happened? Did you have another interview or the job was already yours? MT The next week I started on the operator training course as it was then. But what it really was was the programmer’s course without any coding. It didn't include anything about handling the computer equipment, you never even saw a computer during the whole of the course. And then for the next, I think it was another five weeks, I was actually up on LEO III/1 as an operator and learning how to operate everything. I've, fortunately, always been a ‘watch, learn, do’ person, so I picked up how to handle magnetic tapes, how to handle printers and paper tape, punch cards, very quickly. EM We are talking about which year? MT That's 1962 still. EM Okay. Which month? Do you remember? MT That would have probably been around June. Then there was an advanced operator’s course which included some machine code, but nowhere near enough. And the end of course review was conducted by David Caminer (DC). EM What do you remember of him, of DC? MT He was looked upon as somebody exceedingly capable, and in fact on all the courses, the programming courses and the operating courses, they were reviewed by a senior person, one of the senior consultants. The instructor was not allowed to be in the room. So that students could give their responses honestly and I gave a very heavy criticism of the course saying that, you know, it was essentially no use to an operator and that the operator, basically learnt on the job afterwards which, if you had a new installation and no experienced operators would be a problem. And, when I went back operating and about three or four weeks later DC came into the outside office of LEO III/1 and asked for me. So I was called out from the operating room and he said, ‘Mr Thompson, you were very critical of the operator’s training course. Do you think you could do a better one?’ And I said, ‘I think so, sir’, and that was it, I was moved into operator training. EM So you changed your occupation? MT It wasn't immediate because Ben Stephenson (BS), was the manager of the computer room at that time. BS said he couldn't release me immediately; he wanted somebody else to be able to replace me. And so in the meantime I actually was working almost double shifts because I would do my normal shift on my computer and then spend time with the person who was head of operator training, in fact he was the only person. We worked to work on a new course. EM Do you remember his name? MT Mr Scott. We developed the course with practical exercises, training on all of the equipment that they would find on their computer. How to handle tapes, how to prepare tapes, because the way that tapes worked, for instance, was that there was a little silver marker that was put a certain distance up the tape and that was what controlled where the tape started. And you had to put those on in the right place, the right distance, the right side of the tape; it was careful handling, but essential. Also how to handle printers, how to clean the printer barrels, because they were circular barrels with all the characters on them. How to change ribbons, how to handle paper tape, paper tape codes and how to repair a paper tape if it got broken. EM How did you repair the paper tape if it got broken? MT With sellotape, sticky tape, clear sticky tape. And then you would punch through it with a hand punch to, you know, get the holes back again. And if it was really badly torn up then what you would do is prepare a piece that had the data duplicated and then stick that into the unit. Also paper cards, punch cards and punch card codes, those were all part of the new operator training course. We also got from the Minerva factory a control desk that had been slightly damaged, so it wasn't going to be put out. We actually ran the exercises, the mock control exercises, in LEO I computer room. We had a typewriter and, one of the standard IBM typewriters, and we built, with relays, a board that could convert punch cards to the typed characters. EM So that was just for training purposes, right? MT For training purposes. We also had an engineer’s control desk, in full functioning order, but slightly damaged in one corner, so obviously it wasn't going to go out to any customer. And we had what used to be used for programming punch card readers and printers on LEO I; they were big plug boards and we could change how the lights lit up on the engineer’s control desk by changing the plug boards, so we could run mock engineer’s control desk exercises. EM How many people attended this course? MT We tried to keep it at about twelve people at a time. Some of the very early attendants were from British Oxygen Company. Mr Scott had, during the time we were doing the preparations, got very interested in a pirate cab company and he was actually missing, he was supposed to do some of the lectures on the first course, and he was missing. So I finished up doing all the lectures on the course and the advanced course which included machine code and a lot of diagnostics. In fact, the major diagnostics on any tests were actually done by the operators. EM How many men and how many women were attending the course, in percentage? MT From other companies, pretty much all men. EM And operators? MT Because the operators tended to work shifts, they didn't want the possibility of, you know, women getting harassed. That was still back in the days when women weren't in any sort of management job. But programmers, yes. In fact one of the leaders of the master program team was a woman. They used to come to do testing of new versions of the master program on LEO III/1, at least once a month. EM Was she Mary Coombs, do you remember her name? MT No, I don't. EM And, you were talking about shifts. So were they eight hour shifts or more and did it cover all the twenty four hours? MT There were three shifts over twenty-four hours, but on the LEO III/1 we actually ran seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. So we actually had four shifts. So the weekend shift you would work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And then if you were on the normal day shifts you would work the five days, Monday through Friday. The weekend shifts were twelve-hour shifts. EM And what time was the first shift? At eight in the morning?? MT Usually it was six till two, two till ten and ten till six. EM So you remember the involvement of women more on the programming side because, well no shifts during the night were needed, right? MT No shifts. It was all in open offices. Now, to give you an idea, there was a ladies room in Hartree House and in there was a bed. And that was for ladies who were having painful periods, so that will give you some idea of the sort of way that things were looked upon then! EM And this was not something common? MT Oh it was certainly common. EM To have a room for ladies in a company? MT Yeah. But this was a separate room with just the bed and a chair. And then you have the normal ladies toilet etc., completely separate. EM When did you take charge of the course? Teaching and preparing operators? MT What happened was that DC did the review of that first course, and came to see me afterwards. He said, ‘when I ask questions about how Mr Scott performed’, he said, ‘people on the course said, ‘who’s Mr Scott?’; because he hadn't been there? EM Which year are we talking about now? MT That was probably right at the end of 1962, coming into 1963. And he said, ‘if Mr Scott wasn't there, you are now head of operator training’. Mr Scott was gone, I never saw him again. I finished up with three staff under me. We ran so many courses for the post office and, you know, the sales really picked up. EM How many weeks was the course? MT It was two weeks for the initial course, then a four week or five week one, depending on customer preference, and then one week for the advanced course. EM And how many courses did you teach? MT I couldn't tell you a number. But we were running two courses at the same time, that's why I finished up with a staff of three. And later we went over to Bradley House. We’d been merged with English Electric, so it was English Electric LEO Marconi. English Electric Merger EM So we are talking about 1964? MT Yeah. And so I was moved on initially to follow the programming courses and see if I could suggest any improvements because on the operator’s course one of the first things that we did was we laid our hands on an overhead projector. EM What do you remember about the English Electric and LEO merger? MT Well, it happened over a long period you know, first there was the merger with English Electric. Then Marconi came in and most of this was being required by the government; they were forcing this to happen. And so what happened was that I was supposed to look at the KDF9 after I'd gone through the programming courses. In fact I was actually on a CLEO course and on the next to last day the head of training came in, called me out and said, ‘Mr Thompson, we have a special assignment for you’. So myself, and two others were put in an office that had to be locked when we weren't there to, we were the first to know about System Four. And the task we were given was to look at the System 4, well the RCA Spectra 70 machine code and the micro programmes and see if we could improve the micro programs in any way. EM So, let me recap, you were teaching operator courses. Then at some point you were moved to programming courses; so in the meantime you studied...? MT Well basically I was being prepared, probably, for moving up more in to the management of courses overall. Then, all of a sudden, I was one of three people selected to work on the preparatory work for System 4. EM So how can you say the mergers of LEO, English Electric and Marconi affected your position in the company and in your job? MT Not a great deal until I had to start the work on System 4, machine code and the micro programs. EM What year are we talking about? MT That would be 1964. It was just as the introduction of System 4 was starting. Now one thing that probably a lot of people don't know is that one of the reasons that RCA, with their Spectra 70, wanted or gave the rights to production for the machine to English Electric, or as it was then English Electric LEO Marconi. They didn't have any experience with running multi-program or having an operating system for multi-program, interrupt driven computers. The LEO Master Programme team was probably the first in the world. They went over to the United States to write the operating system for the RCA Spectra 70 and hence System 4. They also took the CLEO programming team and they wrote COBOL compilers in 1964. They didn't really become common until about 1965, and they weren't that common then. CLEO beat COBOL quite substantially. EM So what do you recall about the agreements and relationship with RCA, in general? MT I never really saw much of it, but what we did have in that office was the RCA specifications for their machine code and their micro programs. And we also had copies that they had provided of the IBM micro programs and machine codes, absolutely identical even down to some typing errors. So, it appears that RCA may have stolen something! They certainly copied something. So I worked on that very solidly. We were just coming up to an end of that and out of the blue I got a call from a consulting company about Diebold who I believe are still running in England, and the Diebold Corporation in America. Deibold Corporation 1964 to 1967 EM You are talking about which year? MT That's towards the end of 1964. I was told to look in The Telegraph again for a computer advert for assistant tutor. I looked at it and I thought well if I've got a phone call telling me to look at it I’ll apply for it. I applied and found out the reason I'd got the phone call was I was the only applicant! They'd poached me. I worked with one of their consultants developing systems analysis, systems design courses, which included management, union negotiation, programme management. The course was residential and lasted five weeks. In between week four and week five there was one week when the people went back to their own company to carry out exercises. In total the course was two hundred hours of instruction time, most of which I did. The exercises that they had to do theoretically took about a hundred and eighty hours, but we would finish at about five o'clock, dinner at six, exercises started at seven and sometimes went on till two or three in the morning, and I had to be present the whole time. EM Did you regret leaving LEO? MT Because of the way the merger went, the LEO part was pretty much being deemphasised, they were going to go with System 4 completely. But ICL, or ICT as it was then, was coming into the company and so it appeared that System 4 was only being produced for a very short time. It was the ICL 1900 Series that essentially became the main computer that was being produced in England. A lot of, you know, LEO’s approach to programmes, their approach to putting the required manual operations together with the computer operations was essentially a very good part of the system design. That gave me a good basis for working on the system design. I had a fair bit of contact with the consultants over the time I was with LEO. And so throughout the rest of my working life I've always been doing a lot of programme management. The basis that I got at LEO, I would say, was extremely good. The basis for going on with the rest of my career in computers and later computer networking. Then in the last few years I was doing quality management, getting organisations up to the ISO 9000 certification level. EM So can you tell me, briefly, what was your work experience after LEO? MT I worked with Diebold from 1964 till 1967. This was on the systems analysis design course. I also did some consultancy with them, going out with customers to improve systems. EM Were you still living in London at the time? MT No, I wasn't living in London, I was living down in Maidstone. EM But during the time you were working for LEO did you live in London? MT I lived In Maidstone all the time. I used to commute by train every day to LEO; and the same while I was working with Diebold. Zambia, 1967 to 1970 MT And then in 1967, it was around July, I saw an advert in the newspaper for an overseas posting in Zambia. Zambia got its independence in 1964. At that time they had a thousand people who had a university or a secondary education. One of the first jobs that I did was with the examination system. I went out in July, and that first year was pretty much a disaster! They sent all the examination papers, all multi choice exams for subjects, Maths, English, Science and Non-Verbal Reasoning to England to have them punched on to punch cards. These were then copied onto magnetic tape and then they flew the tapes back to Zambia. When we tried to read the tapes every tape would fail! EM Why? MT Because they didn't put the plates in metal containers and at high altitude you have radiation that zaps the magnetic tape and causes an unreadable block. They did it three times before. I said, ‘put them in metal cases’. Then they came but we didn't get the results until nearly September and the schools had already started. Secondary school examinations where they choose pupils from the primary school, only about, maybe at that time ten to fifteen per cent of the students would get through to secondary school, and all the secondary schools were boarding schools. So I proposed the Lector which was a LEO device, designed it to read mark sensed documents. EM Can you briefly explain how it worked? MT How it worked was that you had a sheet of paper, which was the normal A4 size, or eight and a half by eleven, you then had boxes that you would put marks in, these were printed in a light purple which the Lector reader didn't see. On the right hand edge you had black marks that designated the reading area in that particular line so that if you wanted to be really tight they could be close together, if you wanted it to be, you know, really open you could make it further apart. I made the proposal to the treasury’s secretary and then he asked me to make a presentation to the Minister of Education. And about a week later somebody arrived at our computer centre and asked for me. I was told that he was taking me to State House to a Cabinet meeting and could I make the same presentation that I'd made to the Minister of Education to the Cabinet. EM Which computers were in the computer room? MT That was an ICL 1904. The Lector had been modified and there was a new controller built that would work on the 1900 range. After the presentation to the Cabinet I was asked to leave the room, they spent about fifteen minutes discussing, I was called back in and I was told by the President, ‘we wish to proceed with this’. He told the Minister of Education and the Treasury Minister, ‘can we get it done by next year?” “We will get it done by next year’ and we did. I actually had to write the programs for reading the papers on the Lector. We did do the testing and we found that we had an accuracy rating of about ninety nine per cent! EM That's very good. So what did you do after these tasks? Did you stay in Zambia or did you move somewhere else? MT I was actually there, in Zambia, for three years. EM So, 1967-1970? MT That's it. And in July 1970 my contract was up and I then drove back to England, from Zambia. EM Drove? By car? MT With a Land Rover and a wife and three children. EM When did you get married? MT That was 1964. So, my youngest son was born in Zambia in 1968, oh, sorry, 1969. He was one year old as we passed through Nairobi on the way home. He actually shares the same birthday as myself. EM And did you go back to Kent? MT Yes. And we actually owned a house in Kent so we moved into that. We then bought another house, upsized and I worked on LEO III/4 from 1971. EM LEO III/4 was...? MT That was with the London Borough’s Joint Computer Committee. EM So you went back to work for LEO at the time? MT I was working on a LEO again at that time. EM 1970, right? MT 1971 because I arrived back in England a few days before Christmas in 1970. So from July to Christmas I was on the road. Because, what happened, the rule was on the contract that I was on in Zambia, that if you left the coast of Africa by sea and you had your own car on board or you picked up a car at your port of disembarkation, you could claim mileage from the port of disembarkation to your home address. So I went from Zambia down to what was then Rhodesia, down to Zimbabwe, through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and then shipped across, first class, to Mombasa in India. We then drove from India up into Kashmir. Then Kashmir back down into India through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, what was then Yugoslavia, through to Italy. We actually camped out one night in, at a camp round in Venice and then quickly moved on because this was December, through Switzerland into France and then across the Channel, Calais to Dover on the ferry and home to Maidstone. EM Wow. MT Then put in a mileage claim for nine thousand, one hundred and fifty miles and got back a cheque that pretty much covered the total trip. EM Sounds like a very exciting experience? MT Oh, we saw an awful lot, and did an awful lot, and mixed with an awful lot of people. EM What was doing your wife at the time? MT She was just a housewife. London Boroughs 1971 to 1973 MT And then I worked on LEO III/4 with London Boroughs until 1973. EM What was your role? MT I was the manager of Systems and Programming. The overall manager had an operations background and there were two people that were competing for the job that I applied for. One was in charge of Programming, one was in charge of Systems, and neither were doing particularly well. So the London Boroughs Joint Computer Committee, the actual Committee, decided that there should be a manager with experience of both programming and systems analysis, design etc., to bring some order. My interviewing board for that was nine people. There were really only three people that were brought in; the two people that had the systems and programming jobs already and myself. And after the interview, and because I was the last one to be interviewed, I was called back in. The Chairman of the Board said, ‘Mr Thompson, we have selected you, you have the job’. And he then turned to the Operations Manager, or, who was the overall manager of the installation, and said, ‘here's a man you're not going to be able to push around’, which I thought was, you know, a little odd but apparently he had got himself very popular with the actual Board. EM So that 1971? MT Yes. EM This interview with Mike Thompson has been recorded by the LEO Computer Society as part of an Oral History Project to document the earliest use of electronic computers in business applications. Any opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not of the Society. Suggested page footnotes: Page 1 The 11 Plus (also called the 11+ or Eleven Plus) was an examination taken by school pupils in their last year of primary school to get into a grammar school of their choice. In reality most children will only be 10 years old when they take the test – the term “11 Plus” refers to the fact that the test selects for schools with an entry point for children aged 11 or over. Page 1 O-level, the ordinary level is taken before students specialise and students will take separate exams in about 6 to 12 subjects. A-level advanced level, these are taken after O-levels and students will take a harder exam in 3 or 4 subjects. O Level is an ordinary level. Page 5 David Caminer OBE: (1915 2008) had a long career with J. Lyons, LEO and English Electric from the 1930s through to the establishment of LEO and beyond to the formation of ICL. He became known as the world’s first Business Applications Programmer. Page 8 KDF9 was an early British computer designed and built by English Electric. The first came into service in 1964 and the last of 29 machines was decommissioned in 1980 at the National Physical Laboratory. Page 8 The English Electric (later ICL) System 4 was a mainframe computer announced in the 1965. It was derived from the RCA Spectra 70 range, itself a variant of the IBM System 360 architecture. Page 9 Multi-program running, or more accurately asynchronous multi-tasking, time sharing was a LEO III innovation. Unlike LEO II that ran a single programme with operations occurring in a controlled sequence, LEO III introduced multi-tasking that enabled many programs to run concurrently. This was achieved with a Master Routine controlling operations via "Interrupt " orders from the different individual programs demanding priority access to memory etc. Although each individual program still ran according to its defined sequence, the overall sequence of operations across all the programs concurrently running, or time-sharing, was not repeatable or predictable. The programs thus ran asynchronously. Page 10 ISO 9000 is defined as a set of international standards on quality management and quality assurance developed to help companies effectively document the quality system elements needed to maintain an efficient quality system. They are not specific to any one industry and can be applied to organizations of any size.
Archive References : CMLEO/LS/AV/THOMPSON-20171206 , DCMLEO20221230011
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH70217. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.
Click on the Images