The microprocessor revolution

 

 

by Ivor Catt,

March 1984

The microprocessor revolution collides with the real world

A true story. The microprocessor revolution was not without its stresses and strains.

 

The organisation of institutions of further and higher education.

 

Computer Technology.

 

Initially, computers were introduced into Watford College (now West Herts College) in the Department of Maths and Science. Its title was changed to "Department of Maths, Science and Computing", and a computer installation set up within it at a cost of perhaps 20,000. That was some eight years ago [written in 1984].

 

No provision was made for maintenance of the computer system, which hopelessly overloaded the small "General Allowance" of the department, designed for the replacement of broken beakers and bunsen burners. The computer system absorbed all the money available, starving all other activities in the department, and still demanded more.

 

A second problem arose, which was the desire for independence and control shown by the member of staff put in charge of the computer system, who very soon was at war with his own Head of Department. The HoD sought to solve both problems, funding and personal, by recommending that the computer installation be made independent of his department. This suggestion was taken up by the College.

 

Unfortunately, the result was a very damaging divide between the staff competent to teach computer science, still in the old department, and the equipment needed to teach it, which was now in an independent, inaccessible separate unit. The head of the new Computer 'Service', thinking he was setting and maintaining standards of behaviour by those using the allegedly sensitive, expensive equipment, soon ended up denying access to the equipment to all staff. The lecturing staff responded by refusing to undertake any teaching of computers at all, on the grounds that they could not do so without access to equipment. This impasse was marginally ameliorated by the head of the Computer Service hiring staff to do lecturing. These staff could not of course refuse to teach, and they had access to the equipment, but their access to any teaching load was problematical.

 

This impasse, or 'standoff', obtained for some time, some five years ago, when very small, very cheap (500) computers began to appear. These were grasped by a go-ahead member of staff in another department, Engineering. Using a small amount of funds, he set up a lab. with eight of these new, very cheap, rudimentary computers, which, lacking any enhancement like boxes, looked more like engineering equipment than traditional computers. Essentially, the Department of Engineering moved into the vacuum, or standoff, between the Dept. of Maths, Science and Computing on the one hand and the Central Computer 'Service', which was serving no-one, on the other. The scene was set for the Department of Engineering to demonstrate, by growth in number of courses given and number of students, that it could succeed in computer science where the previous department had failed, so that that subject area should be transferred to the Department of Engineering.

 

This plan foundered on the same rock as had caused the problem in the first place. No provision had been made for maintenance of the new small, cheap, fragile computers. For some years, attempts were made to bully the specialist lecturers in the department to do the maintenance work in their spare time, but this finally failed when these lecturers revolted, either by leaving the college or by refusing point blank to do the work. Blame for the chronic unreliability of the machines was then attached to the two technicians who had this responsibility along with four other labs, and in the process they were driven out of the college. Also, the senior lecturer responsible for the machines was twice replaced during the first two years. The battle to fire the third occupant of the post of responsibility for the cheap, unreliable computer systems was long and bitter.

 

The two replacement technicians had quite a long honeymoon period, partly because of a 'boxing program', which in any case put the machines more or less out of operation for a year or more, so their reliability (being fixed at 0%) and maintenance stayed a dead issue, finally came to be exposed to the same charge, that they were not maintaining the machines properly. (Since there was available minimal manpower and negligible funding , this charge was very likely to arise.)

 

By now, with the Department of Engineering some five years into the microelectronic revolution and next to nothing to show for it, those career minded members of staff who expected to prosper from the microprocessor were frantic.

 

An analysis of the problem, that there was some capital allowance but no maintenance allowance to ensure that our growing array of white elephants could be kept in a useful condition, was returned to the member of staff responsible by the Principal of the College with strong words about his tone and manner. The next step in the battle to break the distinction between Capital Allowance and General Allowance, is probably to take the matter to County Hall and beyond.

 

Ivor Catt   March 1984

 

Post script. I am told that many years later, the distinction between capital allowance and maintenance allowance was removed. Ivor Catt    March 2004.

 

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