Fifty years ago today Barclays officially opened its No. 1 Computer Centre at 154 Drummond Street, London. The Postmaster General, Reginald Bevin MP, performed ceremonial duties by cutting an invisible beam with this hand. As the first British bank to open a building of this kind Barclays declared it a landmark in British banking automation. Inside was an orchestration of British computing and telecommunications technologies, but Barclays hailed the building as more than just a British first. It declared its computer centre as the hub of “the most advanced bank book-keeping system in the world”.
The Postmaster General cuts the invisible beam to officially open Barclays No. 1 Computer Centre, 4 July 1961. Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives.
The bank’s computer centre was an old furniture showroom with a large and adaptable ground-floor interior space and a West End location that was conveniently close to some of Barclays’s biggest and busiest branches and their business customers headquartered nearby.
On show were indicators that the building’s function was about much more than simply meeting the environmental needs of a large-scale computer; it also had to function as a suitably impressive “first of its kind” building for a bank wishing to demonstrate its technological prowess.
The opening ceremony took place in the building’s reception area, a massive space framed by white walls, a black granite floor, and a white ceiling supported by simple unadorned large columns. This was the building’s primary gesture to public display. Stretching along the length of one wall was a one-hundred-foot, three-dimensional showpiece mural. The reception area embodied modernist architectural concepts that were in sharp contrast to traditional classical bank architecture that symbolized stability, tradition, trustworthiness, and security. The computer centre was a futuristic building.
The spacious reception area as viewed from the entrance to Barclays No. 1 Computer Centre. Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives.
After the opening ceremony the building’s first visitors were led from the reception area to a specially designed viewing room enclosed by floor- to-ceiling glass walls that provided an uninterrupted view of the computer and its auxiliary equipment. To the right and on show inside the first of these rooms was Barclays Emidec computer. The Emidec 1100 was the first British all-transistor computer and as such regarded as an important first in a class of computers termed the “second generation” of computers. Using less power, producing less heat, occupying a smaller footprint, and more reliable than its valve-based counterparts, the fully transistorised computer presented an opportunity to make a clear break from the computing past.
The Emidec 1100 was a machine built with business rather than scientific applications in mind, and this was something Barclays was keen to stress in order to differentiate itself from its competitors. EMI ambitiously marketed its 1100 model as a central system component of a system with the potential for integrating hitherto separate tasks within an organisation. This marketing neatly tapped into requirements of the business world that were markedly different from the scientific requirements that earlier computing efforts had predominantly been focused upon.
Operating the Emidec 1100 at Barclays No. 1 Computer Centre. Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives.
Barclays portrayed its computer as the leader in an orchestration of technology from a number of predominantly British manufacturers. The Emidec was connected to Ferranti FR 300 photo-electric paper tape readers, Creed 3000 paper tape punches and Ampex magnetic tape drives, which all served as input and output devices and were also housed in this first computer room. Barclays colour coded the different units in the computer room according to their purpose and these colours were used to help describe to the visitors in the viewing room how each operated as part of the data processing whole. On the day of the initial opening ceremony visitors were directors at Barclays’ board and local levels, afterwards they were managers and other representatives from Barclays and other banks and businesses. All were welcomed inside to gaze comfortably from the insulated viewing room upon the flashing lights of the computer, the busy peripherals, and the smooth efficiency of the machine attendants operating within.
As part of the complete visitor experience, guests were given a glossy pamphlet entitled Barclays Bank Limited: Our First Computer that emphasised some of the less visible aspects of the new computer system. Through the leaflet Barclays extolled the efficiency of the new computing system in terms of its storage capacity and the speed at which it could deal with information compared to a traditional branch-based book-keeping system. The leaflet even suggested the new computer system was capable of simple decision making such as that done in a branch. The leaflet listed the input/output and processing capabilities of the computer system thus:
It can store a lot of information: the entries on 9000 full ledger sheets can be stored on 1 reel of magnetic tape, 3600 feet long. It can read information from paper tape very quickly: nearly 700 en- tries in 1 minute. It can sort information very quickly: 1000 entries can be sorted in 45 seconds. It can perform arithmetic very quickly: a credit can be added to a balance in 140 millionths of a second. It can make simple decisions: answering the question, ‘Does the balance exceed the limit?’ takes 410 millionths of a second. It can punch out paper tape very quickly: a statement sheet of 28 entries is produced in 4 seconds.
Past the two computer rooms at the back of the building were the communications bays that connected the centre to twelve Barclays branches. Twenty-four GPO lines and teleprinters allowed branch entries to be input remotely to the computer centre and statement and ledger output back to the branch simultaneously. There was no movement of vouchers or paper between branch and centre.
Schematic of branch-centre communications. Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives.
Barclays had also installed a piece of equipment in the centre that had been wholly conceived, designed, and prototyped by its own staff. This was the Input Checking Equipment, or ICE machine, designed by Davey Thomas and Doug Pierce to check the paper tape transmissions from branch to centre for transmission errors.
The tour of the centre was about a show of computer and telecommunications strength, but it was also about its controlled operation. In the tranparent computer rooms visitors had been able to see the computer operators working within and hear their work explained in relation to the machines they were tending. The tour also involved communicating to visitors the role of Barclays’s programmers whose mental labours were made visible in the form of flow charts and machine code on display. The programmers’ rooms contained exhibits of the “extremely detailed instructions” that its specially trained staff had been responsible for preparing. This display served two purposes. It was not only to communicate to visitors what this new breed of banking staff, the programmer, did, it was also to dispel any notion of the Emidec being an “electronic brain” that could think for itself. Barclays stressed that impressive though its technology was, there was no danger of it making decisions on customer accounts of its own accord. It could only do what the programmers told it do, and visitors were reminded that Barclays programmers, like its computer operators, were all bank clerks first and foremost who knew the business of banking.
The first batch of Barclays computer operators and programmers were all paid a standard bank clerk’s wage. This pay structure held strong until the middle of the 1960s. Up until this time their assignment to the computer centre was viewed as a temporary one and it was “envisaged that they [would] remain at the centre for three years after which they [would] be returned to normal banking duties”. A move to the computer centre was viewed as a temporary secondment, with the centre’s programmers, operators, controllers, and managers expected to resume their “proper” career in banking once the automation work had been completed.
As the workload of the centre and its staff expanded so too did the attractions it was able to offer. Computer centre guests were treated to computer-generated music. A young programmer, David Parsons, wrote a programme that made novel use of the speaker built into the machine’s operator control panel. EMI had originally provided this speaker to enable audible monitoring of a programme’s progress and for sounding alerts on successful programme end or abnormal termination. An enterprising Parsons, following a growing tradition of computer-generated music stretching back in Britain to 1951 and the University of Manchester’s Ferranti Mark 1 computer, made use of the speaker to have the Emidec play a selection of carols to visitors at Christmas time. His programme proved so popular that it was even featured on BBC radio.
In August of 1964, the decision was made to close down the No. 1 Computer Centre at Drummond Street. The building was judged to have served its purpose and left its mark. The initial concessions made in the building’s design for visitors and prestige were now reclassed as “difficulties in continuing to use Drummond Street premises as a computer centre”. However, it would be another six years before the lights were turned off and the technologies and people within stopped performing useful work. After decimalisation on 15 February 1971 the centre fell into disuse and Barclays eventually sold the lease in 1974 to BC Facilities Ltd., a provider of banking services owned HSBC. HSBC reused the building in 1981 as a computer centre for its British Bank of the Middle East and then again in 1984 as a computer centre for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The building was subsequently demolished and the site redeveloped as the UK headquarters for computer consultants Logica. Logica vacated the premises in 2009 and NHS Camden moved in to house a new GP led health centre on its ground floor.
You can read more about Britain’s first computer centre for banking in Technological Innovation in Retail Finance available from Amazon and all good book stores.