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In early 1967 the university's Director of Computing Mike Pitteway handed in his resignation, fed up with being told what to do by university committees. Some of the committee members are staff who are not busy doing research.
My head of department George Hall told me to apply for the directorship, but said that I should look keen for promotion, but I wouldn't get it because I was too young, only 29.
And I got it, to start on 1st July 1967, after our trip to Vienna and moving house from West Bridgford (about 4km for university campus) to Greenfield Street (next to campus). It was handy living so close to campus by the time the new job started, .
My early concentration was on getting known - I became secretary of both the national "Inter University Committee on Computing", the IUCC, representing all directors in the country, and the more local MUCC (Midlands Universities Computing Committee) with directors from Birmingham, Aston, Warwick, Leicester, Loughborough and us). We wrote reports and organised annual conferences. Computing was new, and the conferences were on all aspects of what is now computer science. My knowledge of elecronics from my second degree course was useful in discussing problems with the ICL computer engineers, who had permanent residence in the new building.
And I got to know my funding body well. In those days universities were funded by the University Grants Committee UGC, but to encourage the development of computing, computing centres were funded very generously from another source, the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils. I made friends with the superb gentleman civil servant in charge, Lionel Rutterford, and through regular contact got to know whenever a new source of funds was to be encouraged.
As part of the purchase of a new computer, we needed a new building. It was fun first designing a flashy building which was too expensive, but the eventual one was good and functional. We anticipated the "traffic" between all the rooms to optimise movement around the building. It was the university's first use of huge precast concrete slabs for the roof of the large computer room. The foundations turned out to be cheaper that expected, since we were on firm sandstone. The contractor explained that there was no point in saving money, so we spent the savings raising the height of all the rooms by three courses of bricks. No-one has ever noticed!
Six more-or-less identical computers were bought for six universities, each costing £1.1 million (perhaps over £20 million in today's values). They were the most powerful machines 1906A made by ICL at the time, in their West Gorton (Manchester) factory. Nottingham was the only university with a competent electronic computer hardware expert. He could go to the factory inspecting parts still under construction, and understand what was being demonstrated. We needed a dedicated electricity supply to the local substation to provide the half a megawatt of power the computer and its air conditioning used.
Under my guidance the centre staffing rose from 6 to 56, not that I was an empire builder. We ended up working 4 shifts, and living close I could pop in at shift change-overs to check that all was well. We had a strike at one point when my university committee pointed out that researchers often worked nights, so why did we need extra pay for the night operators. Behind the scenes I negotiated with the unions in a pub in town, until all was resolved.
In those early days I tried to set up computing outposts in each faculty of the university to assist researchers new to computing. Compared with being an ordinary academic, it was a pleasure to get to know people in many different disciplines.
In 1968 our "Examinations Department" appointed a young keen guy Richard. At that time they used huge sheets of paper to organise the exam timetable so that students could take a wide variety of courses. He said to me can't we get the computer to help. So with a long standing friend Ian Turner (on a year out from a thick sandwich degree at North Staffordshire Polytechnic) we created an effective program. You gave it the list of exams being taken by each student, and any special requirements ("I need my exam on a Friday because I only come into work one day a week") and bingo. The first year we sent for information to all staff what the computer would have produced. Shock horror from the English Department, we'd put the Dickens exam before the Shakespeare exam. But you didn't tell us? But everyone knows that was wrong. A very upset department of English.
Eventually in 1972 I found that money was disappearing from my accounts, computers are good at adding numbers even though the bursar's department did everything by hand. I reported this to my funding body, the Computer Board, and was immediately hauled up in front of the Vice-Chancellor who said that we don't wash our dirty linen in public. So we did really have dirty linen? And the story made the front page of the Guardian newspaper and my photo was centre on the front cover of the Times Higher Education. So I was fired and demoted to an ordinary lecturer back in the Mathematics Department, very traumatic at the time.
But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, I had a hold over the university and could take as much leave as I wanted and refuse to sit on committees I thought a waste of time. Hence a life of about two months a year of international development work in over 20 countries. Wonderful and more useful to the world as a whole than just being a Nottingham academic. I was well known enough that if the Department of Overseas Affairs (or whatever it was called at the time) received a phone call from anywhere in the world for computer help, they would call me, and I would leave Joy to look after the family while I flew off to sort out the problem! And even when the call was from the Department of Trade to inspect factories in the southern China economic zone, bearing in mind that I know nothing about factories or manufacture, I wouldn't turn down an expences paid trip to China.
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|Eric's life history summary is here |
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Page updated 14-Apr-2023