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A Manchester Computer Pioneer: Ferranti in Retrospect

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129782D
Original Publication Date: 1993-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

GEOFFREY TWEEDALE: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

This article examines the role of Ferranti Ltd. in the developing computer industry in the Manchester area. It looks at the performance of the Ferranti firm once it entered into computer manufacturing, tries to determine where it went wrong and why, and briefly compares the firm with others attempting to enter the field at the same time.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1993 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

A Manchester Computer Pioneer: Ferranti in Retrospect

GEOFFREY TWEEDALE

This article examines the role of Ferranti Ltd. in the developing computer industry in the Manchester area. It looks at the performance of the Ferranti firm once it entered into computer manufacturing, tries to determine where it went wrong and why, and briefly compares the firm with others attempting to enter the field at the same time.

Ferranti Ltd. is a Manchester-based firm and one of the most famous names in UK electronics. It was founded in the late nineteenth century by Sebastian de Ferranti (1864-1930) -- a brilliant inventor and engineer -- and built up by his son Sir Vincent de Ferranti (1893- 1980). By 1963 it was capitalized at £22 million and, with a work force of 20,000, produced a wide range of electronic components and products, particularly electric meters and transformers, for both military and commercial markets. It was a good example of a family firm, which until the 1960s had maintained its position by innovation and sound business strategies.

But the Ferranti story has not had a happy ending. Overcommitted to armaments, itlost 40million in 1991 and 1992, in the wake of the $1.1 billion fraud it suffered in relation to its takeover of James Guerin's fraudulent International Signal and Control of the US. Ferranti's profitable guided missile business had to be sold to GEC, and the firm's work force was slashed from 9,000 to 4,200 by 1992.

Nevertheless, the Ferranti legacy in computing is very much alive. Although many of the computer scientists who were trained on Ferranti computers in the 1950s are now passing from the scene, the concepts and innovations pioneered at Ferranti (and, of course, Manchester University) are still influential in the industry. We are now in a better position to assess the nature of that legacy, largely due to the increasing availability of key documentation. Internal Ferranti documents (including a detailed typescript history of the Ferranti Computer Department by its sales manager, Bernard Swann), the papers of computer scientists at Ferranti and Manchester University, and the correspondence of government organizations, such as the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), are now lodged at the National Archive for the History of Computing at Manchester University. They enable us to answer some of the more interesting questions about Ferranti in greater detail. Why did a computer industry originate in the northwest of England? How did it develop? And why did Ferranti's lead prove so short lived?

A business is born

The computer business of Ferranti Ltd. evolved naturally from its wartime interests in electronic control systems and radar. It was, above all, the war and its nuclear aftermath that had, in the words of one e...