The Computer That Came By Truck

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: April 3, 1957
Location: Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom

Today, a laptop would probably do the job. But back in 1957, when Norwich City Council became a pioneer among British local authorities applying computer technology to handle its payroll and tax on residents, a BIG machine was needed to handle the work, as became apparent on this day.

So big, 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.

The Council’s first computer came from Elliott Brothers of London and was photographed being delivered in February 1957.

It took a while before the monster was up and running. Then on 3 April that year, amid much fanfare and in the presence of the Lord Mayor and the Press, Council officials gave a demonstration of the machine in action.

Within the computer 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 1,000 feet long, each capable of storing about 300,000 “words”. The “words” were received onto the film from hand-punched paper tape.

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.

The possibility that they needed to lose staff to make room for such a massive amount of machinery was not mentioned.

Published: March 6, 2017

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