A UK computing mystery unravelled

I have long joked that I have no “normal” English friends, that the English friends that I have are all not actually English or are otherwise somehow sympathetic to my plight having been expats themselves, or married to foreigners, etc. I had dinner and a few drinks at the pub recently with one of my semi-English friends, and he managed to clear up a little mystery that had long bugged me. As an engineer, I continue to be sort of surprised that there is not much UK-based engineering expertise compared with the US. In the states, for example, we have Apple, Intel, Microsoft, AMD, Seagate, Motorola, etc. etc. etc. In computing the UK has … ???? If I’m missing something, please do let me know, but I can’t actually think of any. However, my friend did tell me about the BBC Micro, the computer that swept this country in the early eighties, when I was at home in the states with my Commodore 64 or at school with an Apple II. There’s a nice history/overview here (“From education to obscurity”) but which begs the question of why the thing ended up in obscurity, why there was no Apple-like revival of Acorn. The BBC is kinder, giving the machine’s creators credit for essentially all of modern mobile telephony, although if it was really that much of a clear impact, wouldn’t the guy have gotten a KBE instead of a CBE?

So we now have the UK computer market partially unravelled, and we have some, but not all, of the answers concerning the lack of engineering companies here, especially in the high-tech commodities market. It’s not that there was never anything here in the UK in this area, it just didn’t survive into the modern era. Is it because the BBC was involved, and thus there was not a free market for the machine independent of governmental intervention? Is it because there was no competition? Because the attempt at export to the US market was, like so many of the attempts with Brit-pop, a total bust? Was it due to the claimed “high” prices?
What else could be the case? Inquiring minds want to know.

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11 responses to “A UK computing mystery unravelled

  1. > As an engineer, I continue to be sort of surprised that there is not much UK-based engineering expertise compared with the US.

    You might like to search Wikipedia for Sir Clive Sinclair and for Sir Alan Sugar, and the articles referred to there.

    So far as computing in general is concerned, Britain’s contribution to it during and immediately after WW2 is a story which is only recently emerging, having been an ‘official secret’ for many years. Again, Wiki is a useful source – look for ‘Colossus’ and Alan Turing, for example.

    The list of British engineering innovations and inventions is far too long to go into in this comment, but you might like to consider that what we are using to share ideas is the World Wide Web. And who invented it? Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, a Briton.

    BTW, your view of the BBC seems to perpetuate the mistake that it is a direct agency of the government. It isn’t.

    Best regards!

  2. Howard–there’s no question that engineering has happened in Britain, what I’m trying to point out is that it’s clearly not commercialized. The web is marvelously free, so its invention by a Brit does not translate into economic gains for the UK! (At least not directly)

    I’m well aware of the governance of the BBC but since it’s run with a public service element, I do lump it in with the government instead of with private industry if I’m categorizing things in a binary fashion.

  3. Acorn, who made the BBC micro span off ARM (Acorn Risc Machines). ARM cpus are in lots of things – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARM_architecture has a list that includes my mobile phone, Apple’s iphone and recent models of Blackberry (possibly even NFAH’s).

  4. Thanks, Chris! I love my blackberry but might be tempted by a new 3G iPhone… either way it appears that I owe something to Acorn/ARM!

  5. > economic gains for the UK!

    I would argue that the W.W.W. is such a part of the business world that it results in economic gains for everyone. My feeling is that best engineering has always benefitted the whole planet, not just the country of the inventor’s origin.

  6. Howard, there is a difference between altruism and economics. Your point is well made, I’m from Minnesota where the university tried to commercialize the failed Gopher service and the web obviously won that battle with its open source approach. However…

    In England we are stuck with a land of shop and shop-keepers and little engineering industry or contribution to the economy. When you have a thriving economy, you can afford to be more altruistic (a la the Gates foundation). So yes, you can define good engineering as benefitting the planet but if your society becomes decrepit due to a lack of an economy, you’re in a bit of a stitch! England has the City propping it up right now but some big messes outside London, and overall an economy that is not even close to competitive on the world market. Diversification into other non-financial industries (outside of the high street) and including engineering, technology, medical devices, etc. would help.

  7. > and overall an economy that is not even close to competitive on the world market.

    How then do you account for the fact that so far as GDP (PPP) is concerned, Britain (not England!) currently ranks 6th in world economies (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29 ), despite the fact that the UK has small natural resources and — in comparison with the other major players — a small population? Surely it cannot all be due to the ‘the City propping it up’, since there are other financial markets in other centres just as strong?

    Your other point: could you perhaps explain what you mean by ‘altruistic’?

  8. The UK has one seventh the GDP as the US but one fifth the population. That seems like an important distinction to me.

    Service sector ‘drives’ UK economy
    from
    http://www.gaapweb.com/news/209-Service-sector-drives-UK-economy.html

    “More people are involved in financial and business services than manufacturing in almost every region of the UK, according to Ernst & Young’s ITEM Club.

    The service sector has seen “unparalleled” growth and evolution over the last ten years or so, a special report from the independent economic forecasting group stated.

    And according to the ITEM Club’s spring forecast, the UK economy will grow by at least three per cent in 2007, more so than any other major global economy.

    Mark Otty, chairman of Ernst & Young, said: “The services sector has been driving the unparalleled performance of the UK economy over the last decade or more.

    ” … the UK services sector outperformed those of all of our main economic rivals, including the United States, since 1990.”

    The sector, which includes accountants, lawyers, architects, advertising and estate agents is the “key” to the country’s future success, Mr Otty added.

    Meanwhile, in May UK house prices grew at their slowest rate since the start of the year, according to research from the property website Rightmove.”

    All I was saying was there was no engineering or high tech or medical devices or any of the high-value-added manufacturing sectors well represented here in the UK, and that inventing the internet or anything else that benefits the world but does not benefit the UK economy does not actually help–it’s a form of altruism coupled with the strange British habit of self-back-patting over being so good and yet constantly whinging about how expensive things are. It’s all right there in the GDP per head. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita

  9. Thank you for your reply!

    > The UK has one seventh the GDP as the US but one fifth the population. That seems like an important distinction to me.

    I am not certain how useful dividing a country’s GDP (PPP) by its population as an index or comparator is in a discussion like this (which as far as I can see is loosely about ‘invention. innovation & industry’), because it does not take into account geographical considerations like a country’s natural resources such as agriculture and minerals. A country could sit on a huge oil-field and have a small population, and thus rank very highly in the table world countries GDP per head, but contribute little to ‘invention, industry & industry’. A case in point is the Gulf state of Qatar, which according to the CIA World Fact Book, ranks 1st in the world using the GDP per capita index.

    > there was no engineering or high tech or medical devices or any of the high-value-added manufacturing sectors well represented here in the UK

    Yet the following source says:

    “Advanced Engineering

    Engineering makes a major contribution to the UK economy and represents a major trading sector. Manufacturing accounts for 15% of total UK GDP and the sector employs 3.5 million people, around 15% of the UK workforce. In 2006, manufacturing exports accounted for 60% of all UK exports.

    UK engineering companies, both within the UK and overseas, have exposure to global supply chains in sectors such as aerospace, automotive, defence and oil and gas as well as more niche areas such as medical devices.” (UKTI, http://tinyurl.com/2rhpjd )

    With regard to the Electronics and IT sector, the same source says:

    “The UK’s electronics industry is the fifth largest in the world, with a £55 billion annual turnover, second only, in Europe, to Germany. There are around 12,500 electronics businesses in the UK, most of which are small companies. The industry employs around 250,000 people. Electronics accounted for 18 per cent of total UK inward investment projects in 2005

    Electronics is a wide-ranging industry. The UK has particular strengths in electronic chip design across a wide spectrum of disciplines, which is recognised globally, and has successfully focused on software and design innovation. As of 2006, the UK currently invests 1.9 per cent of its gross domestic product in software The main sub-groups are:

    machinery components, e.g. microprocessors
    telecommunications equipment
    consumer electronics
    medical equipment
    instrumentation
    process control – used in engineering and statistics
    optical and photographic equipment
    electronic systems design
    photonics, e.g. optical technologies, lasers and laser processing equipment and lighting

    Key electronics products include printed circuit boards and microprocessors.” (UKTI http://tinyurl.com/25cu5l )

  10. Re: GDP per capita, read an economics text if you don’t know why this is considered a better measure of performance than raw GDP.

    Manufacturing high-tech products is not the same as innovation. Taiwan has a huge market in OEMs but relatively few recognizable tech companies, Benq being one. Sector statistics on engineering are always a bit rough for the same misconceptions that drive “engineers don’t drive trains” which seem to be even more of an issue.

    The other key in the link above is the “most of the UK electronics firms are small companies” The original question stands. I see no UK equivalent to Intel, AMD, Seagate, Microsoft, Sun, etc. etc. etc. Chris has mentioned Vodafone, although I’d see their role as dominantly services not technological innovation. Smith and Nephew is the only sizable medical devices company I can think of that is British, where again the US list goes on (Medtronic, Boston Sci., J&J, DuPuy, etc.)

    The kit in my lab here was all made by US companies (Instron, Hysitron, Perkin-Elmer, Dell) and the general lab supplies I order similarly come from local branches of US companies (Fisher Sci., Sigma-Aldrich). It struck me as interesting, and I wondered why. That’s all.

  11. Pingback: Americans criticizing Brits « Not From Around Here

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