Opening of the Computer Science Laboratories

This is the text of a speech delivered by Professor Ian Pyle when the Computer Science Laboratories were opened on 26th October 1977. 

For those of us in the Computer Science Department here, there have been a number of changes over the last few years, some more visible than others. Until now each change we have undergone has been accompanied by the preparation for the next. At last, long last, we have now reached a state of comparative stability, and we are delighted to welcome all our guests on this occasion to celebrate not only the completion of the new Computer Building extension (the outward and visible sign) but also the facilities the building houses - the inner substance. In particular, we have the new computer (which has already been in operation for over a year) and the new Digital Systems Laboratory, located in the old computer room. We also have new offices for computing service staff, rooms for data preparation and interactive terminals, and this very useful room for users to bring and collect their work.

The University of York itself has been changing over its short life, and for most of its years since its foundation in 1960 there have been new buildings being put up. With the completion of this building, there is no current building work at the University; for the University as a whole, therefore, this represents the completion of a phase in its life.

The Computer Science Department began by providing a computing service for the University, and grew from that to teach undergraduate and graduates. This is the way University computing serves the nation and British industry. Each year, industry needs over 3000 graduates as system analysts or programmers. These are graduates not only in Computer Science, but in other subjects as well, most of whom will have gained their experience in computing through their University computing service. Part of the job of universities is to enable these graduates to make sure that computers are used properly -- to enhance human values and conserve material resources.

One of Britain's most eminent Computer Scientists, Professor Hoare of Oxford University, has voiced the widely held view that "The most pressing problem in computing in the next twenty years will be the reduction in the cost of computer software to match the reduction in computer hardware cost". Solutions will require "Improved education, improved tools, and improved hardware". Universities are the focal points of research work to identify and disseminate these improvements, and they need the best available tools and computers in order to tackle this problem. Here Computer Science departments have a vital role, for from them we hope that the ideas for improvements will come. It is important, of course, that the education, tools and hardware developed be closely related to the needs of practical computer users, and this is one of the advantages that we have in York of being a single department covering both functions. It is worth mentioning that teaching and research in Computer Science make quite severe demands on a computing service, in range of facilities rather than in sheer power; for many years and at most universities it has not been practicable for central services to meet these requirements. The computer we now have is outstanding in providing the range of facilities Computer Science needs, which rapidly have become recognised as the facilities needed for improved program production in all subjects.

It is right that I pay tribute to my colleagues in the Department for all their work in building up the computing service. David Burnett-Hall began the service, and has borne the scars of enormous difficulties with a very inadequate computer in the early days. Peter Roberts, as Computer Manager, has brought us valiantly through enhancements and upheavals, and kept a necessary balance between the conflicting desires of our many users. The staff in the computing service have all played their part in making the systems as effective as possible, and in putting York on the map in University computing by the sheer professionalism of their approach.

The British universities have computing facilities which are second to none in the world. Some individual universities in other countries have better, but nowhere is the national position so good. For this we are indebted to the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils, which has striven to achieve a satisfactory computing service at each university, by the use of local, regional and national facilities. The influence of the Computer Board has brought a high degree of co-operation between the computing departments at universities, not matched in any other subject. However, relationships between universities may get somewhat strained in the future as a result of the regionalisation policy of the Board - the finance for peripherals and enhancements in each region is to be distributed by agreement among the universities in the region. It will therefore be for the five Yorkshire universities to decide among themselves how to distribute the provision for the region. There may also be managerial strains which emerge from the introduction of computer networks. The Board encourages this development, which is now technically feasible, but we are all apprehensive of the administrative and managerial problems which are bound to arise.

The growth in the technicalities of computing has been phenomenal. We have as our principal guest someone who has seen the development of computers from a very early stage. Lord Bowden worked with Ferranti Limited when they were building the Manchester Mark I machine, and wrote his book "Faster than Thought" at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951. I was at school then, and our present students were not yet born. Many of the predictions Lord Bowden then made are now past history, but some of his comments show how times have changed: "A rough count showed that about 150 machines are under construction in America and England. One sometimes wonders where the programmers will come from." Lord Bowden compared the building of computers in the early 1950s with the cyclotrons and high voltage generators built in the thirties. "In those days every university had to have a cyclotron on the campus; they were mysterious and gave tone to the place; they impressed distinguished visitors and attracted endowments; their construction gave the whole of the physics department plenty of healthy exercise and kept them out of mischief and covered in oil; the united efforts of the staff were required to keep the machine on the verge of operation, and those who so wished could postpone into the indefinite future the embarrassing decision as to what was to be done with the machines when they actually started to work."

Without undue boasting, either for York or for university computing generally, l think I can say that we have done better than that.
Lord Bowden was the Principal of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology before his retirement, and held office as Minister of State in the Department of Education and Science in l964-65. We are honoured by his presence here. I would now like to invite him to address us and formally open the new Computer Building extension and the Computer Science laboratories.