Story behind this famous photo of when Norwich went electric in 1957

One of 21 giant computer cabinets being delivered to Norwich City Hall in February 1957. Norwich Cit

One of 21 giant computer cabinets being delivered to Norwich City Hall in February 1957. Norwich City Council was the first local authority in the country to have its own computer, a National Elliott 405, which was ordered in January 1956 by the Treasurer Mr A J Barnard. - Credit: Archant Library

Left hand down a bit, up a little, easy does it….made it! Derek James reports on strange happenings in Norwich of 1957.

It is a much-loved photograph which  illustrated so well how times were changing and Norwich City Council was leading the way. It was thought to be the  first local authority in the world to install such an advanced electronic “brain”

And this was no flimsy lap-top. This was FRED.

As you can see it was no easy task for the lads from the Westwood Transport company from Beccles when they arrived to deliver the Elliott Electronic 405 to City Hall in February 1957.

And there were no less than 21 cabinets of the same size that made up the machine called an Electronic Data Processing System. EDP for short!

We reported at the time….this “brain,”  which would become to be known as “Fred,” cost a hefty £37,000 and it was promised that no jobs would be lost as a result of its arrival.

City's electronic 'brain'. While technicians check the computer ... typists assemble data on a tape

Technicians check the computer in 1957 - Credit: Archant Library

Our reporter told how white-coated boffins were worrying to and fro with hanks of wire and electric soldering irons to install the machine that would work out the rates, calculate the pay-roll, make financial analyses and generally save a tremendous amount of migraine in the City Treasurer’s Department.

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“Built into an office behind the rates counter, the machine consists of a series of tin cupboards, a battery of teleprinters, and a formidable control panel desk that seems to have come from a space-rocket launching site.

“The cupboards which are the crux of the whole machine, contain the  ‘memories’ – two of them ‘working memory’ which more or less controls the machine’s system of operation and a ‘bulk memory’ consisting of two mechanisms where the permanent data is stored on reels of ordinary cinema-type film.”

In other words it was a touch complicated.

We said the cost of £37,000 was, on the face of it, high but it would have paid for itself within five years in  savings although no staff in the city treasurer’s office would be put out of work.

“So Norwich now has another tourist attraction. For, being the first in the field, Norwich Corporation is being watched by other civic authorities, and officials from other cities will be interested to see how well things are done here.”

Fast forward to April of 1957 when the Lord Mayor of the day, the one and only Arthur South, later Sir Arthur and chairman of Norwich City Football Club, did the official honours and pressed a button  on the control panel of the “brain” or, what was by now, known in the city treasurer’s department as “Fred” – an abbreviation of “Fiendishly Rapid Electronic Device.”

It was officially handed over to the corporation by Mr L Bagrit, managing director of Elliott Bros (London) Ltd., manufacturers of the machine, officially called an electronic data processing system.

Lord Mayor, Arthur South, pressing a button on the control panel of the “brain” in April 1957 which

Lord Mayor, Arthur South, pressing a button on the control panel of the “brain” in April 1957 - Credit: Archant Library

In addition to calculating and printing rate demands, the machine was responsible for maintaining some 50,000 council accounts, working out the payroll, analysing invoices, and control of the council’s stocks of goods.

The ‘brain’ was on probation for a year and the council had a right to return it and get 80 per cent of their money back if they were not happy.

Comdr. H Pashley-Taylor, manager of Elliott’s Boreham Wood factory where it was made, described the handing-over ceremony as a “most significant occasion for our company, for the City Council, and even for England.”

And the managing director of Elliott’s,  Mr L Bagrit, said: “It is the first time in the whole world, I think, that a machine of this advanced kind has been used by any municipality.”

He said that Norwich had in many ways played an important role in encouraging the use of the machine.

Arthur South, said it had been a “little difficult” to explain to the council why they needed the machine.

“But when the treasurer told us it would save something of the order of £8,000 a year we fell for it!” he added.

At a luncheon which followed at Samson and Hercules House, Mr Bragrit, said the country was falling behind very badly in the application of machines such as the one now installed in the City Hall.

“The Americans are very much more inclined to invest money in new things whereas we do not get many Norwich Corporations,” he declared.

Mr E Deane, chairman of the council finance committee said tribute to the “very far-sighted, very progressive and, I might almost say, very courageous city treasurer” who suggested the purchase of the machine.

Mr A J Barnard, served as city treasurer from 1953 to 1974, and was certainly  a man with a rare vision.