Today, on April 3, a regular computer would probably do the job.
But back in 1957, when Norwich City Council and its forward-thinking Treasurer, Mr A.J. Barnard, became a pioneer among British local authorities applying computer technology to handle its payroll and tax on residents, a huge machine was needed to handle the work. So huge, in fact, that the computer had to be delivered on the back of a truck and then manoeuvred into the offices using ropes, pulleys….and brute strength. In 1953-4, Mr Barnard and his team began looking for an electronic system to handle its rates and payroll. They began discussions with Elliott Brothers of London in 1955, and the City Council ordered the first Elliott 405 computer from them in January 1956.
The firm of Elliott Brothers was formed in London in 1801, and made scientific apparatus. The company diversified into control systems, and during the second world war established a research laboratory at Borehamwood in Hertfordshire to carry out development work for the Navy. It was here that their first computers were built, following on from their work on real-time digital control for naval guns.
The Council’s first computer was photographed being delivered to Norwich City Hall in February 1957.
It took a while before it was up and running. Then on 3 April that year, in the presence of the Lord Mayor and the Press, Council officials gave a demonstration of the computer in action: within the machine was a rapidly revolving magnetic drum on which words could be recorded. Each word was equivalent to a nine-digit number or six alphabetic characters.
The films for the magnetic drum came in reels about 300 meters long, each capable of storing about 300,000 words, that were received onto the film from hand-punched paper tape.
For istance, the preparation of local tax bills came about through the punching on paper tape of the figures involved and the paper tape was used to control electric typewriters. They produced the finished bill on continuous stationery which was then simply torn off and sent to the householder.
Local government involves a lot of repetitive work and Norwich Council thought that it was, therefore, “a field where the advantages of speed and accuracy inherent in electronic data processing will lead to substantial savings.”
They anticipated savings on staff alone of 20 per cent, and the possibility that they needed to lose staff to make room for such a massive amount of machinery was not mentioned.
The Norwich computer attracted a good deal of interest, throughout the UK and beyond. Mr Barnard was invited to present a paper on the Norwich experience to the British Computer Society in November 1957, that was also published in “The Computer Journal” in 1958 as “The First Year with a Business Computer”.
In the article, Mr Barnard, who served as City Treasurer from 1953 to 1974, reflected on the performance of the computer and the progress and mistakes made in the first year of operation. He remained in demand as a speaker at conferences on computers for many years afterwards, and he is commemorated in the street name Barnard Road at Bowthorpe.