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Atlas Computer Laboratory 1961-1975 R.I.P
IUCC Vol 5 No 1, March 1977
On 1 September 1975, the Science Research Council's Atlas Computer Laboratory ceased to have a separate existence, and became the Atlas Computing Division of the Rutherford Laboratory. Since then the process of assimilation into the Rutherford Laboratory has proceeded apace (some might say with indecent haste). and this seems an appropriate moment to pay tribute to a unique institution, which the American National Academy of Science described as a British national computing resource. Also, an account of the manner of the Atlas Laboratory's going may be of interest to readers interested in the politics of science and government, and to devotees of the novels of C. P.Snow.
The Atlas Computer Laboratory was set up in 1961 under the auspices of the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science, and achieved an independent existence in April 1965 (the Nuclear Science activities of NIRNS being consolidated with the title Rutherford Laboratory). Dr. Jack Howlett was appointed the first (and in the event, the only) Director of the Laboratory, and was given the task of setting up an establishment to house the Atlas computer that had been ordered for delivery in 1964. The Atlas computer was immensely more powerful than the machines available to British Universities at the time, and the role of the Laboratory was to make available facilities that would allow research workers to embark on computational projects that they would otherwise not be able to undertake.
Right from the start, there was the intention to provide a computing institute of the highest professional standard: moreover, the Laboratory was seen as serving users from all fields of scholarship, and there was a firm intention to exploit the power of the Atlas, and look for new fields of application, rather than just sit back and wait for customers to arrive. Most importantly, it was appreciated that there is a great deal more to providing a computing service to a diverse community than just handing out machine time: it is the quality of the service that counts, and quality is an objective that characterised the Laboratory throughout its life.
The Laboratory built up expertise in a variety of fields. One of the early problems with the Atlas was the operating system, and therefore a high grade systems programming team was required. Because of the size of the Atlas it was the only machine in the country capable of running large packages like X-RAY and ATMOL, so not surprisingly expertise was built up in these areas too. And in the spirit of seeking out new uses for the machine, effort was put into developing packages for subjects such as computational linguistics. As part of the same outward-looking philosophy conferences were organised and Research Fellows appointed; the Laboratory became a meeting house where computer users could interact with other users in the same or different fields, and with computer specialists, to the mutual benefit of all concerned.
Another area in which the Laboratory gained expertise was in the field now known as COM (computer output on microfilm). The Laboratory acquired an SD4020 microfilm output device and was for many years the only place in the country where a university research worker could get access to such facilities. It is characteristic of the Atlas spirit that they developed software packages to drive the plotter, and educated the users in the advantages of producing a moving picture as their output, instead of the customary burial mound of paper. Computer animation techniques were developed and used to produce educational films, especially for the Open University. Recently the SD4020 was replaced by an FR80, providing a world-class facility unrivalled in Europe. The potential of COM techniques is vividly demonstrated by the colour film recently made about the Finite Element Method.
Times change, and the increase in the level of University computer provision removed the situation which had led to the original purchase of the Atlas. When an ICL 1906A was installed the role of the Laboratory changed: instead of offering a service to all comers, guaranteed time was allocated to approved projects by S.R.C. subject committees. The advent of the 1906A required software expertise to sort out the operating system problems, and the Laboratory's staff reached a position where they probably knew more about the GEORGE operating system than did the manufacturers. But the spirit of the Laboratory remained unchanged: the resources it supplied to its customers were not only computing facilities; it supplied know-how, organisation for conferences, an environment in which all manner of computer applications could flourish. It was a friendly, exciting place.
The end was protracted. In retrospect one can see that things began to change when Jack Howlett announced his retirement for the first time in Autumn 1972. The Atlas Laboratory was his creation, and bore his personal stamp, and with his driving force removed the SRC apparently could not decide what the future role of the Laboratory was to be. Since no suitable candidates were forthcoming to replace him, Jack was persuaded to stay on as Director whilst the inevitable review body considered the future of the Laboratory. At this point the situation became complicated by a decision of the Council to save money by regrouping its activities, consequent upon the run-down of some of the work in high energy physics. With that innocence and impracticality that endears our administrators to us, it was proposed that the Atlas Laboratory should be moved lock stock and barrel to the Daresbury Laboratory, which was about to lose one of its major physics activities. There was disquiet at the prospect of domination by the interest of high energy physics, and in any case, the move would actually increase expenditure, since new buildings would be needed at Daresbury, Whilst leaving a purpose-built building vacant on the Chilton site. Then to add confusion to complication, the Engineering Board of the SRC announced its intention to set up a National Interactive Computing Service, based at Chilton, and the Department of Industry suggested that Chilton should become a Federal Computing Campus, by siting various D of I computing activities there. One of the characteristic features of the Atlas Laboratory was its independence, and strong representations were made that this independence should be preserved, and be seen to be preserved.
Brave words! When the Council finally announced its decisions, it transpired that some of the Atlas function was to be transferred to Daresbury, and that the remainder, which would be responsible for the interactive service, was to become part of the Rutherford Laboratory. High Energy Physics would continue to reign supreme. Operation of the computers has been merged into Rutherford's Computers and Automation Division, and the dismemberment of the old Atlas Laboratory is almost complete.
The Atlas Computer Laboratory in its heyday was the embodiment of the principle that there is more to running a computing service than handing out processor time. It made an immeasureable contribution to the advancement of computational techniques in many branches of learning: it was a unique institution of which Britain could rightly be proud. It is a matter of profound regret that a public body dedicated to the support of Science could not see the long term value of such an asset.
Such words are of course prejudiced. We are told that it is the Rutherford Laboratory that has changed, being no longer a High Energy Physics Laboratory. True, if the main function of the new organisation is computing it would be a typically British action not to place its direction in the hands of computing professionals. But can the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin? It could be that what we are seeing is another example of the High Energy Physicists' unrivalled talent for survival. They are a close-knit and well organised body: perhaps the rest of us should organise ourselves, before it is too late.