Dr Tom Abram, Director , Archives of IT

I wrote here last year about Archives of IT https://archivesit.org.uk and our project to gather oral history from the people of the IT and Telecommunications industries. A year on, here is some of what we have learned from listening to them. One question we set out to answer was, “What kind of people built the industry and are shaping its future now?”

Our focus is the industry of what we now call “tech” for shorthand: specifically, the stored program digital computer and associated voice and data coms – including Internet of course. So, the “pioneers” were active from the 1950s; many born around the 1930s and 1940s, growing up after World War II. Dr Sam Blaxland is a social historian and we asked him what our collection of (then) around 200 interviews, might tell us about the post war generation that established the UK industry. You can read his full report here. https://archivesit.org.uk/the-archives-of-information-technology-more-than-just-computers/

With his broad brush, Sam observed, “… on the whole, they were not rooted in one of the higher social classes. Unlike so many aspects of public life, the business world, law, the civil service, politics and academia in this period, which remained stubbornly connected to an established group of more middle-class individuals, the IT sector was very different. Its newness, and the fresh-thinking and talent it required, meant it drew in people whose fundamental qualities were intelligence and innovation – something not related to social class. In other words, it was close to a meritocracy”.

I am a bit younger than the founders of the industry but was taught by some of them while studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at one of the hotbeds of the new technology, Manchester, in the 1970s, and the conclusion does not come as a surprise. I wonder if historians of the wider engineering disciplines in the IET might say the same. To pick a name at random and test that hypothesis, it is notable that Michael Faraday was the son of an apprentice blacksmith and served an apprenticeship himself as a bookbinder. Fortunately, that gave him an opportunity to read, especially about science, and that links nicely to some other themes from our analysis of oral history.

Many of our interviewees came from truly humble backgrounds and considered themselves working class. Ernest Morris, who rose to become President of the British Computer Society, was born in the Rhondda Valley in south Wales, with grandparents who were miners, and a father who was a railwayman. However, there are pointers in the stories of childhood that adversity can be a stimulus for success and that parental values and actions shape how opportunities are seized. Sir Kenneth Olisa was born to a single mother and an absentee father who was from Nigeria. Olisa grew up in a poor part of Nottingham and became a highly successful businessman and philanthropist (and Lord Lieutenant of London), but he was clear that his mother, with her remarkable force of personality, helped drive him forward. AIT contributors are often drawn from backgrounds where their parents – mostly their fathers – worked in technical, practical or engineering sectors. John Leighfield’s father remained a foreman for his entire career making the bodies of cars: “a skilled man, very intelligent, interested in mechanical things”. Prof Steve Furber, who designed the ARM microchip that is now used in billions of mobile devices around the world, was the son of a mechanical engineer.

Sir Kenneth Olisa
Image Credit: AIT

Regardless of social origins, something that crops up over and over again, is the value of education. The post-war years were an era of reform in the UK. Tied in with the famous changes in the approach to welfare, education also received more funding and attention from the state. The school leaving age was raised; universities were given greater prominence in national life and numbers attending university in these post-war years increased significantly. In many of our interviews this manifests itself in the role of Grammar schools: an emotive topic that generate a good deal of public and academic debate. They were always controversial because of the way they divided children into what was sometimes perceived as ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ John Leighfield, in his interview described the system as “evil”, although he also admitted that “without it…I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you”. Cyril Hilsum, famous for his work on infra-red devices and semi-conductors, was the son of an East End market trader, who passed his eleven plus, went to a grammar school and won a scholarship to university. Sir Michael Brady, who is eminent in the application of Artificial Intelligence to medical imaging found that his grammar ‘changed me completely’. The list goes on.

Cyril Hilsum
Image Credit: AIT

However, it has to be said that good fortune was on the side of these people. From the testimonies, there is a sense of it being a stroke of luck to have been born at a time of fast-paced change, but also of relative economic stability. As Harold Macmillan put it in the late 1950s, “most of the British people had ‘never had it so good”.

So, a picture emerges of a new workforce, lifting themselves out of the manual labour market with the benefit of education and the opportunity of new technology in a vibrant economy. As one observer summarised it, “The grammar school boys who built the IT industry”.

But what about the girls? Actually, there is a substantial minority of women pioneers of the IT industry in the Archive. The most famous perhaps, is Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley who came to the UK as a Kindertransport refugee, created the iconic FI Group, and made a fortune, mainly for the benefit of charity. If there is a moral to the under-representation of women in the industry it might be that those who made it overcame even greater obstacles with the benefit of the mechanisms mentioned here. You can read about some of the challenges specific to women and how that has changed across the years in Sophia Ahamed’s article https://archivesit.org.uk/60-years-of-progress-for-women-in-tech/

Dame Stephanie Shirley
Image Credit: AIT

As for the future, has anything changed about the people shaping the industry? Judging from the interviews of today’s entrepreneurs, it still looks like a meritocracy where anyone can succeed, without regard to gender, ethnicity or social class – if you try hard enough – but some groups are still underrepresented. How does that compare with engineering and technology across the board?

You can find full interview transcripts for all the people referenced at https://archivesit.org.uk/access-our-interviews/