History Lessons: 250 Years of the IT Industry in Britain

Question Time Panel at ‘Learning from History’, BCS, 17 February 2022

The Archives of IT (AIT) held a two-hour seminar on 17 February 2022 in collaboration with the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Computer Conservation Society (CCS). It was entitled ‘Learning from History: Reflections on the past and future of the British IT Industry’. It was an in-person event at the BCS, but hybrid, enabling people like me to view via Zoom. Two presentations were featured, one on the content of the ‘Archives of IT’ by Tom Abram and the other on ‘Post-war Britain and the Tech Revolution’ by Professor Blaxland. These were followed by a ‘question time’ chaired by John Carrington. A recording of the session will be available on the AIT website, so I’ll just note a few of the general themes that resonated for me as valuable lessons.

I’ll start with the last comment from the Chair of the Conference, Professor Doron Swade, who viewed this as a ‘landmark session’ in avoiding a techno-centric perspective on IT, which is all too common, successfully bridging conventional silos, and tying the discussion of social and cultural aspects of the IT industry to technology.

With over 190 interviews in the archive to date, much discussion revolved around ways to build on this evolving collection, such as illustrated by a most stimulating suggestion by Frank Land that the archive is built around interviews with the good (primarily) guys, but what about interviewing some of the bad guys in the IT arena. While there are always ways to fill gaps and improve the collection, my sense was that the AIT already has a valuable collection that could be inspiring to schools, to children, to historians, and others, for purposes that only the users or viewers take from it. It is potentially inspirational to hear Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other pioneers talking about their life and career. The question then becomes how to get these wonderful personal stories to students across age groups and disciplines. How can we make it more findable in the digital world of abundance?

A synthesis of materials in the archive was presented by Sam Blaxland, a historian of education, that provided an example of how the archive might inform thinking about this history of IT in Britain. His insights about the roles of social class, education, and gender in the career histories of successful entrepreneurs and leaders in technology was impressive, such as the prominence of ‘grammar schoolboys’ in the industry as well as the increasingly prominent role of women in IT, such as Wendy Hall and Dame Stephanie (“Steve”) Shirley.

Dr Blaxland was careful to underscore the limits of generalising from any set of oral histories, but he nevertheless presented convincing arguments that such oral histories could help bring the IT revolution more prominently into accounts of post-war Britain, and how the archive could be used to explore topics that go far beyond the aims of those creating the archive. He also made an excellent point about oral histories not necessarily being the best source of the facts, but one of the better sources for understanding the atmosphere, climate, or context shaping figures in the history of the IT industry.

Much of the Q&A seemed to focus on education. How could educational institutions be more successful in creating not only talented entrepreneurs, computer scientists and engineers, but also – as one participant put it – digital citizens. My own take away was that the AIT cannot do much to reshape educational systems, but already it can provide inspiring material to those interested in the Internet, and related new digital technologies. The challenge is how to bring its existence to the attention of educators and findable by students across all levels.

Despite the volume of material that the Archive of IT has accumulated, it is but one of a growing number of archives around the world. What archives should the AIT be networked with to enhance its use and impact?

Even though I am a Trustee of the AIT, I did not expect the session to be as successful as it was. I worried that it was too long, and the panel would be difficult to maintain its audience for over two hours. But it certainly did. Over 30 people were at the BCS in-person, and over 100 were online – and they did not want to stop. At the end of the seminar, some questions had to be left unanswered as the time eclipsed, but it set a high standard for any future sessions. You don’t hear many famously understated chairs in the UK remark that they had just witnessed a ‘landmark’ in the discussion of a topic.  

So … congratulations and many thanks to the organizers and speakers, which included: Tom Abram, Director of AIT; Stephanie Bazeley, Team Junkfish; Sam Blaxland, Post-doctoral Fellow at University of Swansea; John Carrington, Founding MD of Cellnet; Beverly Clarke, BCS; Pamela Cook, Infosphere startup entrepreneur; Professor Tom Crick, Un of Swansea; John Higgins, President of BCS; and Doron Swade, CCS. It was a pleasure to be among your audience.

Bill Dutton

17 February 2022

Comments are most welcome