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Stephen 'Chuck' Knowles: Interview, 26th November 2020, 68654

 Home > LEO Computers > Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) Archive > CMLEO/FL - Frank Land Collection > Oral history interviews > Stephen 'Chuck' Knowl ... November 2020, 68654

Stephen Knowles and LEO Computers Society

Digital audio of a recorded interview with Stephen 'Chuck' Knowles.
Interviewer: Mike Hally
Date of interview: 26 November 2020
Length of recording: 41m38s
Copyright in recording content: Stephen Knowles and the LEO Computers Society

Abstract: Joined Lyons Tea Division in 1962 as an operator on LEO I and LEO II after working for Selfridges. Later switched to programming on LEO III and 326 then moved to Nassau with Burroughs and later to the computing department of Family Guardian in life assurance, where he became Chief Programmer.

Date : 26th November 2020

Transcript :

Stephen 'Chuck' Knowles

Mike Hally 		It's the 26th November 2020 and I'm Mike Hally.  I'm interviewing Stephen Knowles, also known as Chuck, to give us your story of your involvement with LEO Computers from the earliest days.  Good morning Stephen, or do you prefer Chuck?

Stephen Knowles	Whichever, I'm not really bothered.

MH		We are recording this interview as a part of the LEO Computers Society Oral History Project.  The audio version and the transcript will be lodged at a central archive and made available for researchers and members of the public.  So first, perhaps, you'd like to introduce yourself?

SK		I'm Stephen Knowles.  I'm retired.

MH		So, fairly briefly to begin with, just a bit about your family.  Basically, where were you born?  When were you born?  

SK		I was born along the road here in Nassau (The Bahamas).  My father was a priest but he then became a bishop in Antigua.  So I ended up going to England for many years and came back here in about 1981.

MH	So when were you born?  

SK	2nd of January 1943.

MH	So wartime?

MH	And you went to school in England?

SK		Yes.  I went to Woodbridge School (Suffolk England).  Woodbridge School was at the time, boys only but it's now changed to taking boys and girls.    I was a boarder there for many years.

MH		Any particular memories of that time?  What subjects did you get into? Technology, for example?  

SK		I ended up getting nine O-levels and went on to do A-levels - two years of that and then I left school in 1962.

MH	And what subjects did you take?

SK		English, maths, geography, history.
MH	Would those have been the O-levels?

SK	Yeah.

MH	And the A-levels?  Did you take three or four?

SK	Physics, English and Chemistry.

MH	And did you go to university with those?

SK	I really didn't get to go to university.  I'm not sure what happened but I decided not to go.

MH	Did you have a career in mind?

SK		No, I didn't know what to do, so I went and stayed with my friends who lived in London.  

MH	So I take it your parents were still in Nassau or Antigua?

SK	They were in Antigua (Lesser Antillesí).

MH	So how did you get on with them and how did you get into a job?

SK		My brother used to work at Woodbridge School too.  He was quite a bit older than me and he was a teacher and he was in Harrow (Greater London) and I went to live with him.  And then I went to stay with my friends who were in Notting Hill (London), before Notting Hill became notorious with the recording and stuff, and stayed with them for a while.

MH	It must have been a bit of an unsettled time for you.

SK		It was a bit unsettled.  My mother came over and she ended up staying in Harrow as well and I stayed with her for some time, until she left.  Then I went off and stayed with my friends who were in Notting Hill and we spent some time there and my friend, who was working for LEO at the time, got me a job working for LEO Computers in 1962, I think.  And that's how I got into the computer business.

MH		And did you know anything about computers, about LEO?

SK		I knew about computers because I read about it on the papers they had there but I really didn't know much about it until I went to work for them.  Before I went to LEO, I was working a little bit for Selfridges.  That was an interesting period.

MH		What were you doing in Selfridges?

SK	I moved around.  So I started out working in the fruit and veg department, then went to work in the shoe department and ended up working in the sales department.  

MH		So, I guess, there might have been quite a bit of uses of computers at that time in somewhere like Selfridges for payrolls or inventory and that sort of thing?

SK		I don't remember any of that in Selfridges, but of course, they had an ICL machine (International Computers Limited, formerly International Computers and Tabulators Ltd) somewhere near but I didn't get to work for them.

MH		Can you tell me about joining LEO, about what sort of things you were doing there?

SK		Well two of us were hired at one time.  We took the tests and both of us got in and I ended up spending time learning how to use the sorter and all the other instruments they had there, the key punch, the card reader, printer.  Of course, I worked there for several years.  I was originally working for a couple of guys who introduced me to the controls there.

MH	Can you remember their names at all?  

SK		I was working for Peter Tavener, who was my school friend who got me into Leo in the first place.

 MH	Is he in one of these pictures?

SK		He was in the picture that I had there with me and him working on the paper tape somewhere.
MH	Yeah.  So did you actually get involved in programming?

SK		Yes.  To start with for several years I was an operator and different things happened, but I ended up becoming a programmer working for John Sterckx.

SK		Eventually I worked doing the programming for people on the LEO III and 326.

MH	And can you remember any particular projects you were involved with?

SK		Well projects were Tea Division.  I was involved in recording the inventory for different products, the Tea Products.

SK		Of course, I worked in different things.  I worked on LEO I, originally, and then on LEO II and then I was involved in the Tea Division with John Sterckx and we wrote a lot of software.  And then eventually, they ended up ditching the LEO III and getting an IBM 360.  

MH	Just sticking with LEO for the moment. 
		What do you remember of that time?

SK		Well, first of all, we had magnetic tape, which you put up and, of course, the printers which we controlled from the consoles.

MH		It must have been a great time.

SK		It was.  

MH:	What was your wife's name? Unmarried name?

SK:		My wife's name was Norma Samuel.

MH: 		Are there any particular things you remember of that time?  

MH:		Were there funny incidents?  So anything you can particularly remember that would just give people an idea what it was like to be working there at that time? You were in the Cadby Hall area?

SK		Yes.  They had the fire with the LEO III being burnt up at the time, but we got it working in the end.  

MH	Can you say a bit about the fire.

SK		And in those days we had Xeronic printer. It printed out  the forms we needed to use for the recording of the stock .  And the fellow that was running it happened to fall asleep late at night, and suddenly the whole thing caught fire.  Had a lot of black smoke and everything else	 And we put those through an auto-lector (Optical Mark Recognition) machine which was the opposite side of the printer.  It actually recorded the things that they made.  They marked the forms as to what they needed to have and we fed those forms through an auto-lector.

MH		What were your colleagues like and the managers and indeed what was it like as a place to work?

SK	It was great.  It was wonderful to work there.  Of course, my ex-boss,
	he became the one who oversaw the transition from LEO III to the IBM.

MH	And you stayed with LEO for some time, even when the IBM 360 came in?

SK		Yes, I did.  And that's when I ended up coming to Nassau at that time, 1971.

MH	And did you leave LEO at that point, or did LEO have a presence in Nassau?

SK		No, they didn't have any presence here.  I actually joined Burroughs (The Burroughs Corporation, merged with Sperry Univac in 1986 to form Unisys). 

MH	Right, another big computing company.

 MH	And were you still working mainly on the programming side?

SK		Yes.  Of course, my cousin was the one who brought me over; he decided that I would be a good person to tap.  

MH	A nice place to live as well.

SK	Yeah, sort of.

MH	Living in Nassau sounds rather nice.

SK		Well, we've had a lot of rain. 

MH	Did you stay with Burroughs for the rest of your working life?

SK		No, I was there for about a year or so.  And then I ended up leaving Burroughs to go and work for Family Guardian and my friend, at that time, was in charge of the computer system there and he hired me.

MH	So Family Guardian was that some sort of life insurance company?

SK		Family Guardian was actually a big life insurance at the start, but it ended up going to different things.  You can't recognise it today.  But in those days, it was basically working on the life insurance side of things.  My boss was called Jim Gallagher.  He was one of those who ended up being brought over to Nassau from the USA for a while.

MH	So it was predominantly a US workforce, was it?

SK		We had a computer system which was recording disk, but of course, those were the early days and we ended up getting rid of that machine and getting another machine which was basically an IBM 360, a small one.  And then I ended up being taken over as a programmer in charge of the recording.  So I ended up being in charge of the Family Guardian machines   working for them until about 1980 or 1990 and ended up being the  chief programmer for Family Guardian. 

MH		At that point, I think you said you'd left Family Guardian, so were you now working for another company?

SK		I was working for another, working for myself as in charge of another company.  We were doing work for other people, too.

MH		And from the sound of it that that must have been based on all that you'd learned at LEO?

SK	Yes, of course.

MH	So LEO must have been a great start, a terrific grounding?

SK	Right.  Very much so, yeah.

MH	And did that continue until you retired basically?

SK		Yes, it did.  I retired in 2003, and that's why I'm having difficulty remembering how everything went on in those days.

MH		And what about other things apart from the network, you know, something like fishing, for example?

SK		No, I did some fishing, earlier on.  I had a boat, which was interesting.  But I didn't do much fishing.  Used the boat to go to the islands, nearby Rose Islands, but ended up getting rid of the boat and buying my house.  

MH	And what about children, did you have children?

SK		Yes, I have two children. One is working for another company that I am involved in called Southworth Consultants and the other works for
	Virgin hotels.  

SK		So, we're quite well known in the States.

SK	She's the Vice President of People.

MH		It also sounds like you, like so many of us who are nominally retired, actually remain very active. 

SK		But basically looking at my computer now, but that's really not my job.  Itís just something I do for Southworth.

MH		Now, I missed something there.  I meant to ask about professional activities.  Did you get involved in things like the British Computer Society or the Institute of Electrical Engineers?

SK		No.  We had something going for people who were on the AS400 system to start with.  But the fact is we had a lot of groups in Nassau, involved in the AS400 system and we set up a   group of us working for the AS400 and eventually that faded out.  And basically, I'm working on my own.

MH		And obviously, since you've been in Nassau for decades, you wouldn't really got involved much in the LEO Computers Society, I guess?

SK		I have books and stuff.  The book I'm looking at right now is called LEO Remembered.  

MH		And you wouldn't have managed to get to the reunions and things like that?

SK		Yes, I did.  Went to a thing they had in Regent Street.  

MH		So I think just to finalise, just looking back on your time in LEO, the part that those years played in your life, how do you view them now, with excitement or affection?

SK		Well, it's a big thing for me.    That's how we ended up, on the, early days was very good.

MH	And it seemed to shape what you did in later years.

SK		I still have some printouts of my time there. I actually gave part of it to the Computer Society in Texas .

SK		They had  an IBM 360 there.  So I gave them part of my collection. 

MH		Because another of the things that really struck me when I was doing all those interviews with the pioneers, was how many people had some sort of artefact in their house in the attic.

SK		Yeah, well, I still have my print outs, but I can't take them around; they're a bit big.

MH		So, this interview with Stephen Knowles has been recorded by The LEO Computers Society, and the Society would like to thank him very much for his time and reminiscences.  The interview and the transcript form part of an oral history project to document the early use of electronic computers in business and other applications,.  Any opinions expressed are those of the interviewee Stephen Knowles, and not of The Society.  The copyright of this interview in recorded form and in transcript remains the property of The LEO Computers Society 2020.

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

This exhibit has a reference ID of CH70785. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

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