Skip to main content
Article thumbnail
Location of Repository

Continuous path : the evolution of process control technologies in post-war Britain

By Ross Hamilton

Abstract

Automation - the alliance of a series of advances in manufacturing technology with the\ud academic discipline of cybernetics - was the centre of both popular and technical\ud debate for a number of years in the mid-1950s. Alarmists predicted social disruption,\ud economic hardship, and a massive de-skilling of the workforce; while technological\ud positivists saw automation as an enabling technology that would introduce a new age\ud of prosperity. At the same time as this debate was taking place, increasingly\ud sophisticated control technologies based on digital electronics and the principle of\ud feedback control were being developed and applied to industrial manufacturing\ud systems. This thesis examines two stages in the evolution of process control\ud technology: the numerical control of machine tools; and the development of the small\ud computer, or minicomputer. In each case two key themes are explored: the notion of\ud industrial failure; and the role of new technologies in Britain's industrial decline.\ud In Britain, four projects were undertaken to develop point-to-point or\ud continuous path automatic controllers for machine tools in the mid-1950s - three by\ud electronics firms and one by a traditional machine tool manufacturer. However,\ud although automation was dominating popular debate at the time, the anticipated\ud market for numerically controlled systems failed to appear, and all of the early projects\ud were abandoned. It is argued that while the electronics firms naively misdirected their\ud limited marketing capabilities, the root of the problem was the traditional machine tool\ud manufacturers' conservatism and their failure to embrace the new technology.\ud A decade later, small computers based on new semiconductor technologies had\ud emerged in the United States. Originally developed for roles in industrial automation,\ud they soon began to compete at the low end of the mainframe computer market. Soon\ud afterwards a number of British firms - electronic goods manufacturers, entrepreneurial\ud start-ups, and even office machinery suppliers - began to develop minicomputers. The\ud Wilson government saw computers as a central element of industrial modernisation,\ud and thus a part of its solution to Britain's economic decline, so the Ministry of\ud Technology was charged with the promotion of the British minicomputer industry.\ud However, US-built systems proved more competitive, and by the mid-1970s they had\ud come to dominate the market, with the few remaining British firms relegated as niche\ud players. It is argued that government involvement in the minicomputer industry was\ud ineffectual, and that the minicomputer manufacturers' organisational cultures played a\ud major role in the failure of the British industry

Topics: QA76, TJ, HD, DA
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:3497

Suggested articles

Citations

  1. (1964). (the journal editor), "Breakthrough for numerical control",
  2. (1985). [contains a chapter examining CTL].
  3. (1959). A Canticle For
  4. (1994). A Comparison of the British Pharmaceutical and Electronics Industries", [from the "National Environment and International Competitiveness" series] Centre for Economic Performance, Working Paper No.
  5. (1979). A History of Control Engineering, 1800-1930, Peter Peregrinus Ltd., doi
  6. (1981). A History of Microprocessor Development at Intel", doi
  7. (1973). A History of Numerical Control, 1949-73: The Technical Development, Transfer to Industry and Assimilation",
  8. (1956). A Horizontal Boring Machine With Automatic Co-Ordinate Setting",
  9. (1994). A Preliminary Historiography of the Personal Computer William Aspray, "The History of Computing Within the History of Information Technology",
  10. (1956). A Report on the Technical Trends and their
  11. (1988). Aliens' Guide to the Computer Industry,
  12. (1989). Alvey: Britain's Strategic Computing Initiative, doi
  13. (1977). America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism, doi
  14. (1987). American Technology and the British Vehicle Industry, doi
  15. (1985). An Assessment of the Competitiveness of the United States Software Industry", doi
  16. (1970). Anatomy of a Merger: A History
  17. (1984). and Acorn Computers",
  18. (1990). Apricot Computers", in Troubleshooter,
  19. (1956). Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians (ASSET), Automation -A Challenge to Trade Unions
  20. (1957). Automatic Control by Punched Tape",
  21. (1956). Automatic Coordinate Setting",
  22. (1964). Automatic High-speed Measuring Systems for Complex Products and Shape: Interdependent Computation and Cybernetic Inspection Machinery", doi
  23. (1962). Automatic Inspection - Cybernetic Machines", doi
  24. (1955). Automatic Inspection (The Anatomy of Conscious Machines)", doi
  25. (1957). Automatic Production of Electronic Equipment",
  26. (1968). Automation and the Workers, Labour Research Department Publications,
  27. (1956). Automation in the Metal Trades,
  28. (1984). Automation, the Technology,
  29. (1956). Automation: Friend or Foe?,
  30. (1961). Automation: Its Impact on Business doi
  31. (1958). Automation: Technology's New Face, Institute of Industrial Relations,
  32. (1952). Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory,
  33. (1969). Automation: Threat or Promise? Impact and Implications doi
  34. (1993). Before the Altair: The History of Personal Computing", doi
  35. (1964). Beyond Automation: Managerial Problems of and Exploding
  36. (1974). Big Business and the State: Changing Relations in Western Europe, doi
  37. (1993). BOADICEA: A History of Computing in British Airways and its Predecessor Airlines, Speedwing, Hounslow,
  38. (1964). Breakthrough for numerical control",
  39. (1987). British Technology in Comparative Perspective, Seminar on 23/2/96 at
  40. (1957). Case Studies in Automation, Political and Economic Planning, Metchim and Son,
  41. (1972). Changing Technology and Manpower Requirements in the Engineering Industry,
  42. (1988). Computer Architecture and Organisation,
  43. (1955). Computer Controlled Machine Tools", doi
  44. Computers and Genealogies",
  45. (1967). Computers and the Changing World: A Theme for the Automation Age,
  46. (1968). Computers in Industry - an investigation",
  47. (1964). Concord designed for NC production",
  48. (1987). Creating the Computer: Government, Industry, and High Technology, The Brookings Institution, doi
  49. (1990). Croarken, Early Scientific Computing in Britain, doi
  50. (1980). CTL's Second Coming",
  51. (1948). Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, doi
  52. Data Communications at the National Physical Laboratory (1965-1975)", doi
  53. (1966). Data Processing doi
  54. (1993). Dead Ducks, Lame Ducks, and Little Grey Swans: British Industrial Policy in the 1970s. " [from the "Discussion Papers in Economics"
  55. (1961). Development and Organisation of Elliott-Automation Limited",
  56. (1991). Digital's Daring Comeback Plan",
  57. (1980). Early British Computers: The Story of Vintage Computers and the People who Built Them, doi
  58. (1955). Electronic Control for Machine Tools by
  59. (1955). Electronic Control of Machine Tools", doi
  60. (1959). Electronics Exhibition",
  61. (1981). English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, doi
  62. (1970). Europe's Love Affair With Bigness",
  63. (1988). Exploring Corporate Strategy, (2nd edition), doi
  64. (1992). External Economies and Economic Progress: The Case of the Microcomputer Industry", doi
  65. Factory Planning",
  66. (1988). Ferranti and the British Electrical Industry, 1864-1930, doi
  67. (1959). Ferranti Introduce New Machine Tool Control Systems",
  68. (1994). Ferranti-Packard, Pioneers in Canadian Electrical Manufacturing, doi
  69. (1984). Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, doi
  70. Fostering a Capacity for Compromise: Business, Government, and the Stages of Innovation in American Computing", doi
  71. (1968). Fundamentals of Numerical Control,
  72. (1993). Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, Random House,
  73. (1984). Going for Broke - Gambling with Taxpayers'
  74. (1972). Government and High Technology, [the Third Wincott Memorial Lecture, LSE], The Institute of Economic Affairs,
  75. (1982). Government and Technical Progress: A Cross-Industry Analysis, doi
  76. (1900). Government and the Enterprise Since doi
  77. (1993). Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire,
  78. (1946). Heims, Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group,
  79. (1956). Historical and Scientific Background of Automation",
  80. Historiographical Influences William Aspray, "The History of Computing Within the History of Information Technology", doi
  81. (1993). IBM and its Imitators: Organisational Capabilities and the Emergence of the International Computer Industry",
  82. (1991). IBM's 360 and Earl -v Systems, doi
  83. (1989). ICL: A Business and Technical History, doi
  84. Industrial Policy, "
  85. Industrial Policy",
  86. (1984). Information Technology and Industrial Policy, doi
  87. (1989). Innovating for Failure: Government Policy and the Early British Computer Industry, doi
  88. (1971). Inside the Think Tank - Advising the Cabinet, doi
  89. (1957). Institution of Production Engineers, Council Minutes 2.1.6-7.
  90. (1956). International Machine Tool Exhibition -
  91. (1990). Inventing Accuracy: An Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance, doi
  92. (1956). Investing in Automation - The Technical Trends",
  93. (1980). John Sargrove - Innovator and Pioneer of Automation",
  94. (1981). John Sargrove - Inventor of the First PCB", doi
  95. (1996). Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change, doi
  96. (1974). Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press, doi
  97. Labour's Industrial Policies in the 1970s: Debates and Deeds", [from "Labour: The Party of Industrial Modernisation? Vol. VII" series]. Business History Unit.
  98. (1957). Machine Tools of the Future", doi
  99. (1946). Machines Without Men", in Fortune,
  100. (1965). Machines, and History: The Story of Tools and Machines in Relation to Social Progress, Lawrence and Wishart,
  101. (1974). Manufacturers Shares of the Computer Market at the End of 1973",
  102. (1980). Mapping the Information Business, Program on Information Resources Policy,
  103. (1992). Marketing in the Second Industrial Revolution: A Case doi
  104. (1985). Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer, doi
  105. (1971). Minicomputers: Four-Fold Growth by 1975", in
  106. (1972). New Challenge in Europe",
  107. (1957). New Drilling Machine with EMI Position Control",
  108. (1947). New Methods of Radio Production", doi
  109. (1957). Numerical Control of Machine Tools in Aircraft Manufacture", doi
  110. (1988). Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-1972,
  111. (1964). Office, Automation: A Discussion of Research Methods,
  112. (1981). Origins of the APT language for automatically programmed machine tools", doi
  113. (1987). Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-1967,
  114. (1970). Pentagon Capitalism; The Political Economy of War, doi
  115. Pioneering Work in the Field of Computer Process Control",
  116. (1990). Positive Feedbacks in the Economy", doi
  117. (1953). Primary Sources of the Automation Hysteria Anglo-American Council on Productivity,
  118. (1951). Primary Sources on the Technology of Automation
  119. Production Engineering Research Association, "Numerical Control - An Economic Survey",
  120. (1983). Profits Without Production,
  121. (1980). Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer, doi
  122. (1993). Reboot System and Start Again",
  123. (1949). Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication",
  124. (1996). Reconciling Automation and Flexibility? Technology and Production Organization in the Postwar British Motor Vehicle Industry", doi
  125. (1957). Reflections on Automation",
  126. (1994). Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, doi
  127. (1960). Report by the Sub-Committee of the Machine Tool Advisory Council Appointed to consider Professor Melman's Report to the European Productivity Agency on the Machine Tool Industries of Western Europe",
  128. (1994). Requiem for Ferranti",
  129. (1965). Research and Development in Electronic Capital Goods",
  130. (1978). Revolution in Miniature: The History, and Impact of Semiconductor Electronics, doi
  131. (1985). Routine Punctuated by Orgies: The Central Policy Review Staff, 1970-1983,
  132. (1968). Sales and Service: Where Manufacturers are falling down",
  133. (1986). Secondary Sources Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy, Sinclair and the Sunrise doi
  134. (1964). Secondary Sources on Automation Sir Leon Bagrit, The Age of Automation: The BBC Reith Lectures,
  135. (1989). Selling a Performer Without Parallel",
  136. (1979). Social Choice in Machine Design: The Case of Automatically Controlled Machine Tools", doi
  137. (1925). Some Notes on British Methods of Continuous Production", doi
  138. (1981). Systime's Big-Time Target",
  139. (1969). Take-Over: the Facts and the Myths of the GEC/AEI
  140. (1987). Targeting the Computer: Government Support doi
  141. (1976). Technical Diffusion and the Computer Revolutions: The UK Experience,
  142. (1966). Technology, Industry, and Economic Growth, (Fawley Foundation Lecture,
  143. (1964). The 1964 International Machine Tool Exhibition",
  144. (1994). The Analogue Alternative: A Socio-Economic History of the Electronic Analogue Computer
  145. (1955). The Automatic Factory: How will the trades unions react? ", doi
  146. (1987). The British Computer Industry: Crisis and Development,
  147. (1946). The British Economy Since 1945: Economic Policy and Performance, doi
  148. (1959). The British Machine Tool Industry, Machine Tool Trades Association,
  149. (1993). The Cold War and American Science: The Military-IndustrialAcademic Complex at MIT and Stanford, doi
  150. (1993). The Coming of Mix and Match Hardware",
  151. (1986). The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, doi
  152. (1978). The Distributed Computer",
  153. (1956). The Electronic Control of Machine Tools",
  154. The Emergence of a Discipline: Automatic Control 1940-1960", doi
  155. (1992). The Entry of Established Electronics Companies into the Early Computer Industry in the UK and USA"
  156. (1973). The Future for Machine Tools", Paper for BRITEC conference,
  157. (1979). The Future With Microelectronics,
  158. (1969). The Gap Widens, [The Rede Lecture,
  159. (1976). The Great Small Computer Change",
  160. (1950). The Human Use of Human Beings, doi
  161. (1977). The Information Economy: Definition and Measurement, United States Department of Commerce,
  162. (1985). The Inmos Saga: A Triumph of National Enterprise?, doi
  163. (1967). The Innovators: The Economics of
  164. (1971). The Labour Government 1964-1970, Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
  165. (1964). The Labour Government's Economic Record: doi
  166. (1961). The Management of Innovation, doi
  167. (1936). The Next Hundred Years, London, doi
  168. (1973). The Numerical Control of Machine Tools: Basic Principles, Systems Analysis and Industrial Applications,
  169. (1970). The Origins of Feedback Control, doi
  170. (1966). The Political and Economic Environment Anon, Industrial Reorganisation Corporation,
  171. (1969). The Practice of History, doi
  172. (1962). The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States, doi
  173. (1994). The Rise and Fall of Venture Capital", doi
  174. The Road to Scarborough: Wilson, Labour, and the Scientific Revolution, "
  175. (1955). The Robot Era, George Allen and Unwin,
  176. (1965). The Shape of Automation for Men
  177. (1985). The Sinclair Story,
  178. (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: doi
  179. (1985). The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator got its Hum, doi
  180. (1981). The Soul of a doi
  181. (1961). The Stagnant
  182. (1970). The Strategy and Performance of British Industry,
  183. The Teashop Computer Manufacturer: doi
  184. (1981). The UK Semiconductor Industry, "
  185. (1988). The Ultimate Entrepreneur: doi
  186. (1959). The United Kingdom Machine Tool Industry, Pidgeon and Stebbing,
  187. (1975). The US Computer Industry: A Study of Market Power,
  188. (1977). The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, doi
  189. Those Who Forget the Lessons of History Are Doomed To Repeat It' or, doi
  190. (1939). to the Present, doi
  191. (1964). Tool Automation By Electronic Control (Automatic Repetitive Operation and Positioning by Tape,
  192. (1950). Tools for the Job: A History of Machine Tools to doi
  193. (1953). Trade BT 258/1898: NRDC Enquiry into the Computer Industry BT 258/1422: Computers Working Party Report BT 258/1421: Computers Working Party Report
  194. (1970). Translated from the German doi
  195. (1938). War Diary of the English Electric Company Ltd.,
  196. (1964). What's Wrong with British Industry?,
  197. (1980). Wiener: from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, doi

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.