- Moving Targets: Elliott-Automation and the Dawn of the Computer Age in Britain, 1947-67
Elliott Brothers, later Elliott-Automation, was a defining presence in the early British computing sector, responsible in 1961 for half the installations supplied to UK customers. Whereas several of its competitors—Ferranti, Leo, and the data-processing firms that amalgamated as ICT—have received detailed corporate histories, Elliott's story has remained largely unexplored. Simon Lavington's new volume therefore represents a valuable contribution to the national literature.
Moving Targets is a weighty tome in several senses. Comprising 500 pages of body text, with numerous appendices specifying system architectures and instruction sets, cheerfully assuming familiarity with eigenvalues (p. 184) and priced for institutional purchase, it is surely unlikely to "appeal to the general reader curious about the emergence of digital computing in Britain," as the cover blurb gallantly asserts. Such readers are far better served by Lavington's own Early British Computers (Manchester Univ. Press, 1980), which is now available online at http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/EarlyBritish.html.
Rather, its major accomplishment is in matching the depth of other corporate histories while starting from a much less promising archival base. The physical uprooting, confusion, and disillusionment that marked Elliott's disappearance, in a flurry of ignominious mergers around 1967, involved the loss of many valuable records. Lavington has painstakingly plugged the gaps through interviews and email exchanges with former staff—many now deceased—and from the firm's surviving research reports, itemized in a useful appendix.
The explanation for the book's size is simple: Lavington leaves out nothing he encountered. Most of the secondary literature mentioned is summarized and primary sources are quoted verbatim at length, with two of the 14 chapters based directly on personal histories drafted by ex-Elliott staff. Coverage runs far beyond the book's stated timeframe, moreover, in places into the 1980s. Perhaps inevitably, the welter of detail frustrates long-range narrative coherence. Lavington helpfully acknowledges that few will read the volume from cover to cover and provides a chapter map locating coverage of the three main themes: general-purpose computing, industrial automation, and defense (see p. x).
Despite its subtitle, the study is not a contribution to the wider social or business history literature. There is no reference, for instance, to Marie Hicks's recent work on the status of women in the nascent British industry, although it becomes gradually clear that the Elliott environment both fostered and constrained a number of notable female developers such as Dina Vaughan/St Johnston, who left the firm to found the UK's first independent software development agency. Similarly, although Lavington refers briefly to John Hendry's work on the National Research Development Corporation (p. 147), there is no systematic engagement with the literature on national computing policy.
The defense theme is more pronounced. Elliott's main computer research laboratory at Borehamwood grew from a Royal Navy "shadow factory," part of a wartime initiative to disperse production, and most of its early projects were classified. Although the firm was strongly committed to civilian commercial computers, it was chiefly defense patronage that brought it to international prominence in the 1950s, and Lavington argues, the cancellation of cutting-edge military projects was the principal factor in the collapse of the Elliott identity.
This focus sits in interesting tension with the treatment of Leon Bagrit, Elliott's long-term managing director. The trading name "Elliott-Automation," formally the consequence of a merger in 1957, in practice reflected Bagrit's personal vision of industrial reform grounded in efficient, systematic process control and monitoring. Bagrit's self-positioning as "Mr. Automation," articulated publicly through a series of BBC Reith Lectures, strongly differentiated his company from its competitors. Bagrit's corporate strategy, meanwhile, was to license crucial American technologies on a piecemeal basis, [End Page 71] quietly acquiring the means to dominate niche areas internationally. On the face of it, this approach was closer to Prime Minister Harold Wilson's "toolroom of the world" manifesto than to the grandiose...