The Norwich Computer, 1957

The City of Norwich, and its forward-thinking Treasurer, Mr A.J. Barnard, were pioneers in the application of computer technology to the work of UK local authorities and businesses. In 1953-4, Mr Barnard and his team began looking for an electronic system to handle its rates and payroll. They began discussions with Elliott Brothers of London in 1955, and the City Council ordered the first Elliott 405 computer from them in January 1956. It was delivered to Norwich City Hall in February 1957 and became operational in April 1957. The event was celebrated by a demonstration of the machine in front of the Lord Mayor of Norwich and the press on 3 April 1957.


Photograph of Norwich City Council’s first computer being delivered to the City Treasurer’s Department in Bethel Street, Norwich, 1957. Norfolk Record Office: ACC 2005/170 (facsimile)


The firm of Elliott Brothers was formed in London in 1801, and made scientific apparatus. The company diversified into control systems, and during the second world war established a research laboratory at Borehamwood in Hertfordshire to carry out development work for the Navy. It was here that their first computers were built, following on from their work on real-time digital control for naval guns.

The first production machines were the 400 series, starting in 1955, and Elliott subsequently developed the 800 series, forerunner to many of the world’s computer designs. The Elliott 405 was a general business machine featuring bulk storage on magnetic film and other features designed for commercial data processing. Elliott Automation (as it later became) merged with English Electric in 1967, and the following year its assets were acquired by GEC (the General Electric Company Ltd).

The Norwich computer attracted a good deal of interest, throughout the UK and beyond. Mr Barnard was invited to present a paper on the Norwich experience to the British Computer Society in November 1957, and a version of this was published in The Computer Journal in 1958 as ‘The First Year with a Business Computer’.

In the article, Mr Barnard, who served as City Treasurer from 1953 to 1974, reflected on the performance of the computer and the progress and mistakes made in the first year of operation. He remained in demand as a speaker at conferences on computers for many years afterwards, and he is commemorated in the street name Barnard Road at Bowthorpe.

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15 Responses to The Norwich Computer, 1957

  1. Photograph of *part of* Norwich City Council’s first computer being delivered.

    There were 21 cabinets of this size that made up the computer.


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Thanks for this information. I never realised that this was only part of the computer. We do have a lot of information in the archives about how it worked, but I think this is the only photograph we hold of it.


  2. I use this computer as an example in some talks I give. I point out that this computer ran non stop for about 10 years, and that the amount of computing it did in those ten years you can now do with a Raspberry Pi Zero (cost £5) in just under 5 minutes.


  3. Peter Wapshott says:

    I’m pretty sure I saw quite a large framed photograph hanging on a wall ar Bletchley Park a few years ago. The delivery, from the back of a removals van was being supervised by gents in lab coats! I did try to contact Bletchley with the hope of securing a copy but to no avail 😦
    Do you know how and by whom it was programmed?


  4. “Dina St Johnston (nee Vaughan) had always had an independent streak, her friend, Colin Porter, chief executive and secretary of the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers, told me. She left school at 17 to join pioneering computer firm Elliot Brothers, where she learned programming – and thought she had spotted a gap in the market. No programmers were selling software directly to the industry or, as she put it, as quoted in the Computer Journal in 2008: “There was a shortage of processor-oriented people who were happy to go round a steel works in a hard hat.” Dina St Johnston, however, loved working with machinery, and rejoiced in putting on the hard hat; later in life she collected fast cars and drove them at enormous speed around the private roads on her estate. She founded Vaughan Programming Services in 1959, the first software house in the UK. They created software for the BBC, Unilever, BAA, British Rail and GEC. She produced pioneering real-time passenger information systems – the forerunner of those clickety-click timetable boards in stations up and down the country – and flight simulators for the RAF. When she died in 2007, one obituary said that she’d “left a lasting contribution to both the art and science of programming” – and the company she founded still exists, now as a part of GE.”


    • “Dina St Johnston (1930–2007)
      Back in the 1950s computers were enormous machines that filled a room. Many early coders were women because programming was seen as secretarial drudgery akin to typing. The important bit was deemed to be the creation not of software but of hardware, which men oversaw. It was Dina St Johnston who in Britain overturned and questioned this orthodoxy. Born in 1930 and schooled in Selhurst near Croydon, London, St Johnston left her grammar school at 17 against her father’s wishes, taking a job at British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and, to please her father, studying part-time for a mathematics degree. She ended up at a company called Elliott Brothers that produced computer hardware for the military. After proving herself a skillful programmer, St Johnston was given the job of writing software for the Elliott 153 computer, designed for use by the Royal Navy. She went on to write the program used by Elliott Brothers for its payroll, and oversaw the first purchase of a computer by a local council – Norwich City Council in 1956.

      St Johnston left the company in 1958 to found her own, Vaughan Programming Services (VPS). An entrepreneur at heart, St Johnston realised it wasn’t practical or cost-effective for hardware companies to produce their own software as well. Instead, so-called ‘software houses’ could design applications to meet companies’ specific needs and provide customer support when things went wrong. At first, VPS was run from her house, a converted pub in Brickendon in Hertfordshire. By the end of 1962, St Johnston had a staff of eight people, creating bespoke software for blue-chip companies like Unilever, BAA and British Rail. Her company also developed alarm and monitoring systems for the nuclear power plant at Sellafield: an operating system called Master Control Executive (MACE) that ran on eight different types of computer and had a broad range of industrial applications, from warehouse crane control to railway signaling. VPS even produced its own computer, the 4M, which was used by British Rail to track the position of trains.”


      • victoriadraper24 says:

        Hi Steven, thanks so much for the information about Dina St Johnston, she sounds like an incredible women and yet seems to be less well known in history.


  5. idol says:

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