School of Computer Science

1959

The position of Lecturer in Computing is established in the Department of Mathematical Physics and Ken Redish is appointed to this post. The concept of a University Computing Service is conceived about this time, the intention being both to provide computing facilities for research in all disciplines and to undertake research in computer science itself.

1961

The University decides to purchase an English Electric KDF9 computer and establish a University Computing Service as a new extra-Faculty unit to run the KDF9.

The University placed a provisional order with the English Electric Company on 28th January 1961 for a KDF9 computer with 8K words (of 48 bits) of main memory (6 microseconds cycle time), 2 magnetic tape decks and paper tape input and output. No printers, disks or other I/O devices were thought to be necessary at that time!

1965

The KDF9 passes its acceptance tests and the University Computing Service is now fully established as an extra-Faculty unit.

Several lecturers in computing within the Department of Mathematical Physics were transferred to the newly created unit with Ken Redish (Senior Lecturer in Computing) as its first Director. Other staff appointed to the Computing Service were a Computer Manager and several programmers and operators.

The lecturers in the Computing Service initially taught courses on programming (open to all academic staff and research students in the University) and also spent considerable time in developing and maintaining software as well as undertaking research (at that time mainly in numerical analysis). They also taught several optional courses on programming and other aspects of computer science that were introduced into the degree programmes in Mathematical Sciences during the 1960s.

Initially the KDF9 was intended to be fully operational by December 1963, but doubts soon arose of the ability of English Electric to meet this time scale. The ability of the proposed machine configuration to meet the functional requirements was also called into question. A lengthy and at times acrimonious dispute arose between the University and English Electric. Eventually, a modified configuration (including 16K words of memory instead of the original 8K) passed the acceptance tests on 21st June 1965. The form of the acceptance tests and the interpretation of the results had already become the subject of academic research.

The KDF9 computer itself was physically large (typical of machines of that era). The cabinets were 5 feet 9 inches high by 18 inches deep by 3 feet 8 inches wide. Seven cabinets were needed to house the 16K configuration. The early plans had been to house the computer in the Watson Building (where the Department of Mathematical Physics was located), but that location was found to be unsuitable for the special requirements of a computer room. Instead, the computer room was constructed on the Lower Ground floor of the Aston-Webb Building in an area formerly used as a students' cloakroom, under the foyer to the Great Hall. A mezzanine floor was constructed in the adjoining area to house Computing Services staff. Another room nearby was used to house Creed Teletypes which were used to prepare programs on paper tape ready for input to the computer, and to print results which were returned on paper tape.

1966

A major upgrade to the KDF9 computer increases its functionality considerably.

The UGC (University Grants Committee) completed a review of University computing throughout the U.K. which resulted in the establishment of the Computer Board (under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Flowers) to provide earmarked funds to Universities to improve computing facilities. The University of Birmingham was given the funds to upgrade the KDF9 to include a 4 million word disk (weighing over a ton!), punched card I/O and high-speed printer. The software was upgraded to the Egdon/Cotan operating system which included a Fortran compiler (previously K Autocode and Algol were the main programming languages available) and support for on-line access. A PDP8 computer was also installed as a communications controller for 12 on-line teletype terminals, a vector graphics display screen and a 30-inch graph plotter. The teletype terminals operated at only 10 characters per second, but any on-line access was a radical advance at that time! However, most computer usage continued to be via punched-card and paper tape input as the software support for on-line terminal use was still very primitive and the performance of the on-line terminals was extremely slow by modern standards.

1967

The University Computing Service becomes the Computer Centre.

In 1967, Ken Redish resigned as Director to emigrate to Canada and Dr Stuart Hollingdale was appointed as Director of the Computer Centre.

This was a time of rapid expansion in the demand for computing, mainly by researchers in science and engineering disciplines. The demand for computer power always far exceeded the supply. The KDF9 computer required the continuous presence of operators to load and unload magnetic tapes, feed in cards or paper tape, etc. and hence was quite labour-intensive and expensive to run. Initially it was operated for only one shift (i.e. about 40 hours per week).

To increase the supply of computer power, the University moved to two-shift working in August 1967, three-shift working in August 1968 and four in October 1970. In 1968, the University submitted a case to the Computer Board for a newer and more powerful machine. However, a lengthy period of discussion ensued over the choice of machine.

Photographs of the KDF9 installation taken early in 1968 are in the Photo Gallery.

1969

The Computer Centre is given the status of an academic department in the Faculty of Science and Engineering for the purpose of running degree courses in computer science. The MSc course in Computer Science is established and has its first intake of students in October 1969.

From the start of the MSc course in 1969, it was recognised that the Computer Centre was taking on two distinct roles: the first, that of providing a computing service to the rest of the University, and the second, that of an academic computer science department undertaking teaching and research in computer science. This was soon reflected in the internal organisation of the Computer Centre into a Service Division consisting of the Computer Manager, Programmers and Operators; and an Academic Division consisting of all the lecturers. Clerical support staff remained effectively shared by the two divisions.

Formal photographs of the staff and postgraduate students were taken annually during Stuart Hollingdale's time as Director and are in our Photo Gallery.