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0 ACC 75/13: Finale: J Howlett
The Atlas Computer Committee met for the first time on 20 October 1961, under the Chairmanship of Sir William Penney (later Lord Penney). The first item was the statement that Dr J Howlett had been selected to be Head of the Atlas Computer Laboratory. The Committee has since met on 33 occasions under a most distinguished sequence of Chairmen: Sir William (Lord) Penney, Professor Flowers (Sir Brian Flowers), Lord Halsbury, Professor Sir Rudolf Peierls and Professor Sir Hermann Bondi. I have written 115 papers for the Committee, not including this, which is my last. In June of this year I had to write a paper for the Atlas and Rutherford Laboratories' Whitley Committee on the work of the Atlas Laboratory in 1974/75. I began this with a brief backward glance over the history and philosophy of the Laboratory, and reading this again now it seems to me a not unreasonable signing-off piece. So I offer it now, as such, to the Atlas Computer Committee with my thanks to that collective body going back to October 1961 for an exceptionally fascinating and rewarding experience.
On 2 May 1975 the Chairman of the Science Research Council issued a General Notice (21/75) outlining the Council's intention of making important changes in the distribution of activities amongst the Atlas, Daresbury and Rutherford Laboratories. Whilst much work has yet to be done on the detailed implementation of the' general decisions, and particularly on the time-scale, this undoubtedly signals the end of a phase for the Atlas Laboratory. And as I shall be retiring from my position as Director here within a few months, it seems appropriate that I should preface this report with a personal note on the aims, outlook and achievements of the Laboratory.
Of course one must not live in the past or waste time and energy wishing that things were as they used to be, but it can be useful and instructive to take a look at the past on occasions, and possibly good for one's morale.
The decision to buy the original Atlas computer and to set up a laboratory around it was taken mid-1961, and I was given the job of bringing this about in December of that year. This was in the days of NIRNS, SRC's predecessor at Chilton (and later at Daresbury). The computing resources then available to all but a very few of the. universities in Britain were exceedingly poor in every way - hardware, software, staffing and quality of service - and I and the colleagues who began to join me to form the Atlas Laboratory were quite clear about what we wanted to do: to build up a computing institute of the highest professional standard with which to provide research workers in universities with resources and services which they could not get at home; and which would actively seek to exploit the powers of the machine and look for new fields of application, rather than passively wait for custom. In 1963, when we had got the plan of the Laboratory reasonably well worked out, we issued our first brochure, a 5-page elegantly printed (of course) booklet in bright yellow covers, which said this:
"The National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science placed an order in the autumn of 196] for a machine of exceptional power, a Ferranti ATLAS, to be installed on the Chilton site during 1964. Like all the National Institute's equipment, it is intended as a national asset and will be available to research workers in all the universities without charge. There is no suggestion that its use shall be restricted to nuclear physics, even to physical science in general: physicists, psychologists and linguists will be equally welcome in the Laboratory. It will be available also to the Atomic Energy Authority's research laboratories at Harwell and Culham and to various Government research establishments - for example, the Meteorological Office is intending to use the machine for fundamental work on weather problems, and the Medical Research Council for work on the structure of proteins and viruses."
(Incidentally the AEA never made much use of Atlas, but the Meteorological Office did a vast amount of work on the machine, which later enabled it to make the case for the 360/195 now installed at Bracknell.)
The view of the Laboratory as a national asset and of users from all fields of scholarship as welcome, and to be helped, is one which we have always held and which I hope will never be lost, whatever changes may come about in the future.
In the first years of the Laboratory what counted above all else was that we had a far more powerful computer than any university in Britain, with the sole exception of London where they too had an Atlas - a smaller installation than ours, actually. This meant that by coming to us research workers could tackle computational projects which otherwise they would not have been able to consider. and ensured a rapid build-up of custom. But later the Computer Board was set up (in 1966) and, once it got underway, began to inject quite massive amounts of money into the university computer world and consequently to up-grade those resources very considerably indeed. It was a long time before any university other than London got a more powerful machine than Atlas, but the general level rose and is still rising - and our preeminence in sheer processing power was lost. However, the demands on the Laboratory never ceased to increase; the reason for this is that we are essentially different from a university computer laboratory and can still provide services and resources which the research worker cannot get elsewhere. Apart from the very high standard of operational service and general help and support, I would summarise these as follows:
- Guaranteed service: given the backing of one of the SRC Subject Committees, a user can be certain of getting stated resources - eg, so many hours of machine time each week, so much store and so on - for a stated period. This enables a large-scale project to be planned with confidence.
- Special software, which is maintained (in the engineering sense) by the Laboratory and on which professional help and advice is always available. Most of this is in the form of large-scale comprehensive packages, such as those for quantum chemistry, crystallography, engineering structure calculations, signal processing, text handling, graphics.
- Special equipment: starting with the SD4020 microfilm recorder in 1968 we have built up the most powerful computer graphics and animation system available to British universities; and with the new FR80 recorder we have world-class equipment, unequalled in Europe. On a smaller but still important scale we have the Optronics microdensitometer installed primarily for scanning and digitising crystallographic films, but actually of much, wider application. In both cases the supporting software is essential to the full exploitation of the equipment and for the microfilm and graphics work this requires a very big effort.
The point I am wanting to make is that there is a great deal more to providing a computing service to the kind of community which we serve than just handing out machine time. The computer is probably the most powerful and complex of man's inventions - certainly the invention of the century - and seems to be of literally unlimited application. One of the Laboratory's great assets is the experience built up over past years of applications in the whole field of science and the humanities, together with an unrivalled range of contacts. I hope the Whitley Committee will regard it as great a complement to the staff of the Laboratory as I do that I have been invited by the American National Academy of Sciences to take part in a meeting in Chicago in August, at which the case for a computer centre for theoretical chemistry is to be discussed; they have asked me to describe the organisation, activities and outlook of the Atlas Laboratory, under the title: "The Atlas Computer Laboratory, a British National Computing Resource".