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Chapter 2: The introduction of computers

The revolutionary change from manual to computer aided preparation of highway schemes and contract documents took place in the 1960s. The revolution spanned only a short period of time but the increasingly widespread use of the computer has been significant and has had a lasting and continuing effect on all areas of highway work.

Local authority engineers and consulting engineers were involved in the early years of development. The major watershed in the general acceptance of the computer was the production of a fully coordinated suite of programs for highway design known as the British Integrated Program Suite (BIPS). It was put together under the auspices of the County Surveyors Society (CSS) with the co-operation of the Department and was used extensively by the Road Construction Units (RCU) for road geometry. Resistance to computer usage had existed because there had been a great deal of practitioners’ time invested in the processes that had gone before. This vested interest together with the chore of learning new ways prompts resistance to change. With the completion and introduction of BIPS in 1967 all resistance dissipated and use of the computer became commonplace.

The revolutionary change from manual to computer aided preparation of highway schemes and contract documents took place in the 1960s. The revolution spanned only a short period of time but the increasingly widespread use of the computer has been significant and has had a lasting and continuing effect on all areas of highway work.

It is the introduction and early development of computer usage on which this chapter concentrates. General applications are covered while some specific areas of usage are described in subsequent chapters. Following an introduction to set the scene, the background and history of computer development is given together with the personal recollections of some of those involved at the time. Each of these recollections contributes to a picture of the time, place and the aims that people developed. Although not exhaustive, it seeks to recognise the contribution made by everyone involved in all the offices working on the motorway programme.

Anyone who was working on the preparation of highway contracts in the 1950s will recall how tedious the work could be. It involved a stream of seemingly never ending arithmetical tasks which were needed to supply the basic data to design the scheme and prepare the contract documents.

Surveying and setting out in good weather could be fun, in bad weather miserable. When the site work was finished the work of reducing the information gathered into plans, of plotting the proposed road, of inferring the cross sections along it, of measuring volumes of cut (excavation), fill, rock and unsuitable material and so on could be infinitely boring. Calculation and plotting of drainage runs and calculation of structural works had similar characteristics, if a little more interesting. The main interest came from seeing the scheme appear from the imagination, exercising ingenuity in fitting details together and ensuring the simplest construction at optimum cost.

The tools available were the same as those available in the previous century for railway design. They were 5, 7 and 9 figure logarithmic tables, the slide rule, mental and longhand arithmetic. The planimeter had also become available. Where error could be cumulative, such as in the closing of a survey traverse, 9 figure logarithms were necessary. Reducing survey levels required a great deal of mental arithmetic while the slide rule was used for complex calculations. The planimeter was used to measure the area of an enclosed space by tracing a pointer around the periphery. It was used to measure areas on cross sections prior to the assessment of volumes of cut, fill and so on and the determination of a mass haul diagram showing how the cut and fill may be disposed. The use of the planimeter was a real chore and each area had to be measured three times to ensure accuracy. The planimeter and its use in calculating quantities from a mass haul diagram was a tedious process as was analysing stereoscopic photographs from aerial surveys to produce a ground model.

In past times at the height of the railway boom, the organisation of such work involved large teams of clerks, surveyors and draughtsmen. It was a significant element in the cost of preparation. The engineer supervised and bridged the gap between design and calculation. It was clearly necessary to set up and rigorously define the tasks of those involved and great use was made of tabular forms.

That task was not unlike preparing a computer program except that the cost of calculation was very much more expensive. The scale of the work needed careful thought to limit the work to be done. Many methods used in today’s environment would have been economically inhibiting, indeed impossible in some cases. The upshot was that many rule of thumb methods were devised to adapt to the economic imperatives.

During the 1950s the role of the surveyor/draughtsman was disappearing as university places became more commonly available and graduates were employed to fill the junior ranks. At this time the volume of work was limited and many graduates went overseas where the experience was intensive. Some money was being spent in new towns and many estate roads were being built. Early preparation work was being carried out on some motorway routes but the level of activity compared with the motorway programme of later decades was small.

As time went by, work abroad in Public Works Departments was shared with other nationalities and young families returned home for education reasons. By the late 1950s work started to increase in new towns and county councils. In addition many local authorities were installing computers in their Treasurers Departments and educational establishments were also purchasing computers.

In comparison with a modern PC early computers were massive, their computing power was infinitesimal and their reliability was troubling to say the least. As an example of an early computer, an IBM1401 is pictured along with its many peripherals - note the absence of both a visual display unit and keyboard! Although the very large mainframe computers were primitive compared with a modern desktop personal computer (PC), they provided an invaluable means of off-loading the burden of arithmetic. In fact, as those who first had the opportunity to use such workhorses soon realised, it was possible to do much more than simply convert existing techniques to avoid the arithmetic load.

The very mobility of staff in local authorities meant that once the interest in computers appeared in one place it was transferred to another and the process was contagious. The two local authorities where the interest in using the computer for highway work first appeared, in 1960, were Cardiff City Council and Durham County Council. In Durham John Petrie, whose enthusiasm infected many of the staff, made the first advances in computing highway geometry. Much of his work was carried out on an IBM 1401 machine purchased by the County Treasurer. Any reader interested in finding out more about this and other early British computers should consult the excellent history written by Simon Lavington or one of the many Internet websites dedicated to the history of computers.

In Cardiff Ron Bridle discovered a Standard Telephones machine, the Stantec Zebra, at the Welsh College of Advanced Technology.

Ron immediately realised the value of the computer for undertaking structural calculations for the Cardiff Inner Bypass (Eastern Avenue). City Council staff were enthused with courses, instigated by Cardiff and run by Ed Stuart, Head of the Computer Unit at the college. Glamorgan County Council engineers, through Owen Gibbs, were also caught up in the wave of interest as were staff from Cwmbran New Town Development Corporation. In addition to structural calculations, drainage and traffic assignments were programmed. Strict management of computer work and budgets was introduced. Program specifications had to comply with written instructions which were rigidly enforced.

When Ron Bridle moved to the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1963 a Stantec Zebra machine was found at Bradford Technical College. Courses were arranged for programming the Stantec Zebra and for writing programs in ALGOL, from which it was easy to transfer to FORTRAN when the County Council’s own computer was updated. Work took off very quickly with an outstandingly able staff developing a number of original programs. An idea of the arcane nature of computer operation in the early days may be gained from the figure, which shows a grossly simplified system diagram and a sample of the punched paper tape used to input programming instructions and data to the computer. In practice the input tape would be prepared from coding sheets at a teletype machine and results would be output from the computer onto a similar tape that would then be ‘read’ through the same teletype machine.
IBM 360

The Introduction of ComputersMeanwhile, Bill Gallagher in Warwickshire and Peter Cornick in Hampshire (and later West Sussex) initiated programs following the work of Vincenzo Calogero on establishing alignments. Other county councils interest started to stir and existing packaged general stress analysis systems were beginning to be used in consultant and county council offices. At the same time, air survey had made strides in producing contour plans using stereoscopic photography which increased productivity, reduced arithmetic tedium and improved accuracy.

The RCUs were formed in 1967 and Ron Bridle, who was then Deputy County Surveyor II at Cheshire County Council, became Superintending Engineer in the Cheshire Sub-Unit. A separate computer group was recruited to provide, obtain, and adapt engineering programs to meet the new motorway programme demands using the County Council’s computer; Borman Lee was appointed to manage the County Surveyor’s use of the computer.

Throughout these early years there was recognition of the need for a national forum for the dissemination of information and for the determination of common standards and specifications. The CSS provided that forum initially by setting up a computer panel in 1964 under the chairmanship of Basil Cotton, County Surveyor of Durham and a computer group in 1966 chaired by John Leigh, County Surveyor of Hertfordshire. Then, in 1967, the first biennial national conference was promoted and organised by Cheshire County Council. These conferences were supported by specific subject groups which met as frequently as necessary to meet delegated objectives.

By 1966 the need to overcome the difficulty in formulating common action became an imperative. Three local authorities, Durham, West Riding and Cheshire decided together, combining the drive and enthusiasm of their County Surveyors, Basil Cotton, Colonel Stuart Lovell and Ban McIntyre and their staffs, that an effort should be made to provide a package of programs that would be compatible for use in all county councils. A team was set up in Wakefield under the direction of John Stothard of West Riding; the team included Geoff Formstone of Cheshire and Gordon Craine and Roger Elphick of Durham. Their task was to produce the British Integrated Program Suite (BIPS). Work on various components was also undertaken at participating county council offices. By this time the Department had taken the initiative to form Highways Engineering Computer Branch (HECB) under Frank Boeuf and Harold Cowling was the liaison engineer who gave BIPS its national status.

Once the RCUs were created the network for driving on development was in place and the considerable mobility of staff aided the revolutionary change for computer usage to become established and widespread.

The overviews that follow in the next two parts of this chapter enlarge on the topics introduced above and the personal recollections that follow in the third and final part breathe life into the technical side of the story.

The following subjects are covered in the printed document (Volume 2):

COMPUTERS AND COMPUTING - AN OVERVIEW

The Computer Industry
Computers 1960 to 1965
Computers 1965 to 1970
Drawings by computer
Metrication
County Surveyors' Society

HIGHWAY DESIGN SYSTEMS

British Integrated Program Suite (BIPS)
Second Generation Highway Design Systems
Modelling Systems (MOSS)