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Innovative Information Systems
1980 - 1990
If you were to ascribe historical descriptions to the eras of computer development, you might describe the 1970s as the Iron Age when the hardware became powerful and reliable .It was the golden age of Electronic Data Processing. The 1990s could be described as the Industrial Revolution when old ways had to change to fully embrace the new world of IT. In the middle was the 1980s. The 1980s could be described as the Renaissance era, the beginning of IT.

Before the 1980s, most of the administration and operations of most organizations was either partially electronic or pre-electronic. Paper driven procedures were in abundance. There were few computers in schools. Computing was still thought of as a nerdish science. Computers were hard to use and, anyway, out of the reach of ordinary people. Microcomputers had appeared in the first personal computers and were becoming embedded in mainframe and minicomputers for certain simple functions. And then came the 1980s and the world started talking about the possible uses of the emerging technologies. As these technologies became available users started to experiment with them and, as a result, pioneered many of the IT applications that we take for granted today.

This section of the Archive is about some of that pioneering work told in contemporaneous accounts. The Case Studies are recorded here solely because they survived and, hopefully, because they are interesting. They cover a wide range of IT usage and they provided valuable lessons. Inevitably, they were all successful which was probably the reason for documenting them.

Many unplanned things happened in this Renaissance period. A typical story is ROCC’s involvement in Event Management. The company had entered the USSR market in 1977, on the back of the then UK government policy of Détente, with, somewhat unusually, a computer system that was Cyrillic in operation. The first system had gone to the largest cold meats factory in Moscow and had worked well. In 1979 the Soviet Authorities needed computer systems for the Moscow Olympics to be held in 1980. The systems were to be used for accrediting [and probably monitoring] all the visitors to Moscow for the Games. ROCC supplied the systems which worked very well and thereby acquired a reputation for Event Management. [No Case Studies were ever produced for Soviet Bloc projects. Glasnost came many years later.]

Three years later, the Pope decided to visit his homeland in Poland. It was also a huge event and once more we became the people with the Event Management System. In the meantime the software had been renamed ‘Conference Management System’ and was being used for large international conferences in the UK. In 1984, the UK hosted the G8 Summit in London and once again the
Event Management System went to work. The story is interesting because there was no competition for Event Management Systems and, by definition therefore, no market. This was not unusual in the 1980s.

In 1981, American Express took a look at the ROCC videotex system with a view to finding a use of benefit to their huge client base of business travellers. After some brainstorming it was decided to offer an ‘Airports Flight Arrivals and Departures’ information service, accessible from any videotex terminal, nationwide in the UK. To make it work, digital information had to be taken from the new Flight Information display boards at the airports and fed down telephone lines into a computer database that could then be accessed by videotex terminal. American Express deserved a medal for persuading the airport authorities to co-operate. The service was launched as Sky Guide. It was a brilliant idea. Eventually it was put on to the television teletext service.

And so it goes on. The City of Bradford not only had an online shopping service but also one of the most comprehensive public information services in the UK. It was so good that at one point they ran a General Election Results service. Hounslow and Richmond Borough Councils were also public information service pioneers.

In the National Health Service, terminals were put into pathology labs for the first time with the ‘Lister’ system. NHS supplies and logistics were computerised with ‘Risotto.’ Acronyms were a huge growth industry. The London Borough of Bexley computerised social housing repairs while the London Borough of Brent built a Transport Management System for their garbage trucks.

A groundbreaking system was the UAPT/INFOLINE online credit reference system that enabled Nissan and others to sell Hire Purchase contracts on car dealers’ forecourts. This system revolutionised car loans. Under confidentiality agreements, ROCC supplied systems to Finance Houses for online car financing services.

There was even a system for a school in Brighton to help teach computing long before computers went into schools. Unusually this system was documented. ROCC donated, maintained and supported computer systems for schools for many years on the basis of confidentiality. Publicity might have created a demand that could have been embarrassing.

ICI Agricultural Division put Teleputers in the homes of its sales representatives to improve communications and work scheduling. These were the first home/work systems. Purnells’ system did much the same for its book salesmen.

Milletts had an executive information system in the Boardroom. British Gas also built an executive information system. Philips had an extremely sophisticated and accessible management information system. There were many of these types of system. In the 1980s there were no simple, advanced search techniques for gathering information. The antecedents of today’s search engines can be found in the query languages and purpose-built information mining and presentation systems of the 1980s.

There was a challenging telecom project to keep the ‘Torus’ Fusion programme under control using then ‘state-of-the-art’ networking systems.

There was even a system for a church…

The Case Studies are on a drop-down list. They represent a small percentage of the projects the company undertook. They are reasonably representative and they do give a flavour of the times. All of them were great fun to do. Many of the systems remained in use for years. Eventually all the good ideas were re-engineered into new technologies.

Michael Aldrich

October 2008



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