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

By Ross Hamilton


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
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