Early Years

Foundation

Everard Greene was sent to the USA in 1903 by Ralegh Phillpotts (a corporate lawyer and Secretary of British Westinghouse Electric Co) and Robert Porter (US Census Commissioner and Engineering Editor for The Times newspaper) to investigate the electro-mechanical computers that had been invented by Dr Herman Hollerith. He was duly impressed with the Hollerith machines of the Tabulating Machine Co (TMC, which became IBM in 1924) and spent several months being taught how they were assembled and operated for census work and in commercial applications. In 1904 Phillpotts, Porter and Greene set up in business in London but immediately realised that the machines were useless in the commercial market until they could be converted to pounds, shillings and pence. A bigger obstacle was the attitude of the British workforce to this automated threat to their jobs – a trial installation at the Woolwich Arsenal was sabotaged by having the wires cut and the machine frequently disconnected from the power supply.

In 1907 the British Tabulating Machine Co (BTM) was established as a public company and given exclusive use of the Hollerith machine patents in the British Empire (except for Canada). They enjoyed a monopoly in their ‘market’ in the pre-dawn darkness of the information age, but it required patience and skill to create demand to rent the machines, let alone to buy them.

British Census 1911

BTM began to court the British Registrar General to try and win the contract to analyse the 1911 census. Unexpectedly, no American census machines were available, so BTM had to design and build their own with the help of Thomas Kesnor & Co, engineers. It took three years of fraught and costly blood, sweat and tears.

The contract was not yet in the bag and the Registrar General, Sir Bernard Mallett, was making apprehensive enquiries about whether this new little company was up to the task of running the prestigious and complicated census. Everard was asked if they could really do it. He replied “This company has never failed to carry out its obligations for any contract it has undertaken”, which, fortunately, was taken at face value and the contract was awarded. Between 1910 and 1920, BTM’s capital increased from £12,000 to £58,000. More census work was awarded in Egypt and Australia, and large corporations gradually woke up to the possibilities offered by BTM’s machines.

Business Applications

The typewriter and the telephone were in common use but their benefits were straightforward and obvious, whereas the whole science of monitoring performance, analysing financial data and using metrics in planning and business development was in its infancy. A sophisticated accountancy-literate sales team was needed to advise on what to use the machines for, as well as providing technical instruction on how to use and maintain them.

%d bloggers like this: