Norman Sanders started working with computers in the mid-1950s at Cambridge; he witnessed the early days of computing and met and worked alongside many of the famous innovators in the field from Maurice Wilkes to Alan Turing. Reflecting on his career, Norman says: “It was terrific fun. I’m a project man and I lived in Canada, the United States, Italy, Norway, back and forth and round, just enjoying myself and not ever arguing about salary. And when I got promoted to a point where it was boring, because it was managing people, I’d get out and go get down to the bottom again.”
Norman Sanders was born in Camberwell in 1929, his father converted photographs to printable images to be used by newspapers. He, his brothers and mother were evacuated to Somerset when war was declared as their house in Camberwell was literally just outside the main defence line of London.
Norman’s first primary school was in West Wickham, Kent and he finished his primary education in Somerset and then went to Wells Blue Grammar School having sat the 11 plus.
At the end of the war, the family moved back to Kent and Norman went to Beckanham and Penge Grammar School to finish his education. Apart from having to give up soccer and learn to play rugby at the age of 15 as part of the transition, Norman says he enjoyed his school days.
Norman did his national service in the Air Force and was paid to go to university lectures for a year in Bedford. He had his sights set on being a physicist from the very beginning. He says: “I discovered later on, many years later, that physicists were very clever chaps, so I changed to mathematics. But it was physics right from the very beginning, with a bit of chemistry.”
Having always thought that he was going to be a physicist, Norman ended up on a mathematics course and decided he was a mathematician instead. He explains: “This Air Force experience changed me totally and so I had to, sort of, re-tread myself as a mathematician.”
Working in the Admiralty in Whitehall, Norman did evening classes at Birkbeck College and they advised him to go to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He says: “When I went up to Cambridge, I discovered two important things; one was Fred Hoyle was there, and so I went to his lectures anyway, I did those for two years for the fun of it. But I knocked on the door of the maths lab, and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a computer here’ … ‘Yes’ … ‘Can I join you?’ … ‘Yes, but you have to graduate first’. So, I did that and went in and the rest is history.”
This wasn’t Norman’s first encounter with a computer; he’d worked on an analogue computer at the Admiralty; but it was his first experience of digital programming. Computer science research at that time was seen as something of an arcane experience, Norman says: “I couldn’t understand it, I became a sort of John the Baptist of digital computing while I was still an undergraduate and I used to go around telling everybody, ‘This is the future: drop medicine, drop engineering’, you know, and all the other things that the others were taking, but nobody did. No one else at Trinity Hall had the slightest interest and it was my fault because I wasn’t able to describe it too well, I think.”
While at Cambridge, Norman met Alan Turing who was at Manchester at that time but had been invited by the Cambridge maths club called the Quintics to give a lecture. Norman says he was one of the last people to see Alan Turing alive, he says: “What I didn’t know until 1976, and this was in the fifties, was that all these chaps who were my lecturers at Cambridge, they were all together doing decoding and stuff at Bletchley Park.”
Norman says that although Turing’s death came as a shock, it was clear at the lecture that there was something wrong with him; “It was tragic. There was obviously something wrong with the guy. He wandered around all the time in this large room. He never finished a sentence. It was horrible. This is a great man, you know. ….. But he did not look or sound like a great man, there was something wrong and he was stuttering and stammering and so forth, not finishing his sentences.”
Norman spent 1956-57 at Cambridge’s Mathematics Laboratory with some of the great names in computer science, including Maurice Wilkes and David Wheeler. David became a family friend and visited Norman in Seattle where he worked for Boeing.
JCP Miller was Norman’s supervisor who used Norman to test out ‘ancient ideas, medieval ideas, numerical ideas’ as Norman explains; “I wrote integration routines, differential equations; numerical analysis came alive for me, it wasn’t just a book, it was reality and became my life for many years.”
Having gained his diploma with one of only two distinctions given out that year, Norman was offered two positions, one for the Institute for Advance Studies and the other for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Maurice Wilkes advised him to go for the Vancouver role saying: ‘Take the Vancouver job, the Institute for Advanced Studies has had its day. Vancouver hasn’t even woken up from day one yet, go over there and get it running’.
Norman spent two years in the role building a department from scratch, however, he realised that it was never going to go anywhere, so when the chance to explain the difference between English and American computers at a computer conference organised by Boeing arose, Norman took the opportunity and ended up with a job offer. He explains: “Boeing entered my life my entree to industrial computing. It was as though Cambridge had existed in total isolation; there was no talk then about actually using the computer in industry or anything like that.”
Norman would later write the quote: ‘computing’s too important to be left to the universities, it needs to be an engineering discipline’. He says: “However, as far as Britain was concerned, only the universities had the ideas, so it was Manchester and Cambridge, who got that side, whereas in the United States they harnessed their first computers, from 1942, on military stuff. The universities were, of course, involved in the States, but here in this country, as far as I know, it was only a university thing and people like Hartree and Wilkes and so forth, bless them, they innocently knew little about industry.” When the Cambridge Maths Lab decided to do computer graphics, Norman advised them to find a forward-thinking British company to find out what the engineers were doing and offer to do it for them.
Norman took a role of programmer at Boeing, he says: “In no time flat I found myself running everything. I suppose I was the manager, something like that….It wasn’t highly structured, all decisions were made in the corridor really, shouting matches with more shouting than anything else.”
Boeing learned to value its computing people, giving Norman and the team a free hand to do things needed by the engineering teams as Norman explains: “It was a totally new thing. At Boeing they knew aerodynamics and everything else, but they didn’t know computing and we were a brand-new type of homo sapiens and they were terrific people to work with.”
The first breakthrough of the new team was the introduction of online flight data plotting. Norman and his team introduced plotters to plot the data collected from flight tests and all sorts of vibrations, analysis and so on, which had until that point been done manually by engineers with the printouts provided by the computing team.
Having found two companies that could make the plotters, Norman wrote the programme for them, he explains: “So I got my first plotter and I wrote the programme and as all the computer operators were too busy operating computers, I brought a bloke in from the outside and told him how to run this thing. So, I got this all running and one day I came through and there were four or five really old guys, well into their fifties, standing amazed. These were the chaps who, during the war, had designed and built the B17, the B29, the Flying Fortress and the Super Fortress, and their lives had been drawing lines by hand, and here was a plotter. This was stuff that they understood, coming off the computer, and they didn’t say a word, they just watched as lines were coming over their head.”
For Boeing this proved to be the seminal moment; the start of CAD/CAM and computer-related design of aircraft which made them world leaders ahead of everyone else.
Personal adviser to Harold Wilson
Norman was introduced to Harold Wilson by Eddie Williams, Marcia’s husband. Wilson visited Boeing and upon meeting Norman said: ‘I’d like to spend a day with him’, so Norman invited him to his home the following day. During that visit, Norman explained how he was bringing over British computer programmers to Boeing because he couldn’t find enough in the US. He explained about the development of the 727 and CAD. He also told Wilson about the need to harness the power of computers, he says: “I told him that the British industry should harness computers and make things with computers. He’d never heard of a computer.”
After his return to Britain, Wilson sent Norman a copy of a speech he’d made at the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough, where he spoke to the audience about the need for a “new Britain” to be forged in the “white heat” of this “scientific revolution”. (Wilson’s words, not his, says Norman.)
Wilson sent over several people to Boeing and to meet him and discuss his ideas. In 1964, as well as talking to visiting politicians, Norman also wrote the PM a memorandum on British Computing urging him to consider merging all the small computer companies into a single company, Norman explains: “My key thing was, don’t put a lot of effort into building computers, use them, because there are lots of computers being built now and you might as well just buy the computers and use them. It’s not what they did, but I said, ‘If you want to continue building computers then instead of having half a dozen small companies put it all together into one company and call it the British Computer Company, BCC’. So, they did that, they put them all together and they called it ICL, International – the word British didn’t show up at all.”
The Norwegian Technical University, Trondheim – on leave of absence
In 1963 Norman, taking a 50% pay cut, decided to take a two-year leave of absence to go to Trondheim, to help them establish a computer science department. He describes it as ‘the Scandinavian answer to MIT’.
When he arrived, Norman was informed that computers weren’t for students, they were for professors. However, Norman had other things in mind and posted an advert recruiting students who were interested. To the surprise of the other lecturers, who thought their students were too busy, 400 students arrived at the appointed time to declare their interest in computer science. Inundated as he was, Norman invited Jim Tocher who was on a post-doc from California, to stay on and teach programming. Norman says: “And it set the whole place on fire.”
Looking back on the time Norman recalls how much he enjoyed it, he says: “I took a fifty per cent cut in salary to go to Trondheim just for the fun of being with these bright young kids, these eighteen and nineteen year olds, who have become professors, they’ve become directors and admirals and Christ knows what. Just to get them going!”
After two years at Trondheim, Norman returned to Boeing and then in 1968 left to join Sperry Univac. He was recruited to run their newly established seminar centre in Rome having been recruited by Bob McDonald, the President of Sperry Univac after a visit to Boeing. Norman explains: “It was a really posh place, but they wanted someone to run it. Bob McDonald said, ‘I don’t want any of our salesmen running it, I want someone who really knows all about computing running it’. He said, ‘I want you to run this’…..I went to Rome because it sounded like fun and it was good. I’m a two-year man, really, at heart. I like to start with an almost green field and get things going and then, because I don’t like managing things, I like getting in there and getting going.”
During the two years Norman spent in Rome he demonstrated the power of computers to senior managers from around the globe who frequently knew nothing about them, he explains: “I really had to describe what a computer was, so I built a big wooden computer, a two-dimensional thing, a big board with a silver screen, and different coloured programmes running on it. They didn’t really run at all, it was me interacting and standing up there and doing a dance, more a ballet than anything else – but I had a black box attached by a wire to this thing, so I would take that out and I would hand it to one of the audience and ‘Press that little green button’ and suddenly you see control changing from one programme to another for a few seconds then going back again, to give them a sort of feel for what goes on inside a computer.”
Having spent two years at Sperry, Norman left to join the Metier company. Metier was a start-up, concentrating mostly on the offshore industry. I t was established by five people, including Dick Evans as President. The five had previously set up and then sold TSL Time Sharing Limited.
They recruited James Miller as their first programmer, plus a number of others, mostly from BT, and then invited Norman to join them to run the software department. Norman explains: “So they started to pop up in Australia, in Saudi Arabia, and all sorts of places. But all the programming was done in Ipswich and they needed some old twit to come and look after it and open up the front door of a morning.”
Norman continues: “I came here for a year and I stayed for five. It was a very, very successful company, it was a superb idea, and the worst idea was to sell it. It was leading the world on project management. We had terrific fun. I never thought I’d stay five years at any one thing, but we had a tiger by the tail. We were like a large family.”
Return to Norway
Metier was sold in the 1990s and Norman retuned to the university in Trondheim, he says: “I got a reputation for being an organiser by being a sort of creator of new organisations.” Having established a successful computing department previously at Trondheim, Norman was asked to set up a department for offshore technology. He says: “I knew nothing about offshore technology; I didn’t know an oil well from a hope in the ground but I knew how to get things going, and I built that up and it’s been running for years and years now.”
Before retiring, Norman worked with a packaging company close to one of his houses in Norway. He set out to introduce computers and project management for them. He says: “It was a company that ran projects but weren’t aware of it; they knew nothing about the profitability per project and all the rest of it. I got all that going based on what I’d already been working with in the past, and I stayed there until the very end.”
In retirement Norman has returned to his love of mathematics and is finishing a book; ‘Pythagoras for Parents’. He explains: “Its original title was ‘Mathematics for Mothers’ because the only people who can really teach mathematics are mothers, because they can spend an hour every other day with their son or daughter, from the age of about nine, and teach them mathematics. Their problem is that they don’t know what the mathematics is, so I’ve written this book which starts from not knowing anything at all up to trigonometry, step by step.”
He started teaching school mathematics but found the discipline issues problematic so is now teaching individuals; he says: “It was absolutely hopeless. If I walk into a classroom, they all just throw things at me. You get a little old lady in her sixties, who’s been teaching all those years, and she can walk in and they all shut up. But me, I walk in and the noise level becomes a crescendo.”
Norman believes that technology offers a huge career opportunity for young people. He says: “I’m not clever enough to know what’s going to happen tomorrow but I’m amazed at what has happened.” Acknowledging some of the negative consequences of social media, Norman adds: “Technology’s neutral, isn’t it, it’s what you do with it.”
Norman on Turing, The Bombe & Colossus
Norman met Alan Turing in the summer of 1954 when Turing was invited to give a lecture about Fibonacci’s Series to the Cambridge Quintics mathematical society of which Norman was a member. Turing had been at Cambridge and was friends with many of Norman’s lecturers who, Norman found out later, had all served at Bletchley together. Norman says: “It was amazing, it was just a bunch of friends, really, who’d got themselves to Bletchley and then got themselves back to Cambridge afterwards.”
Norman says that it was evident that something was wrong with Turing, although no one knew what at that point, he adds: “It was quite clear to me that there must be something wrong. Here was this great man, walking around and giving a talk about Fibonacci’s Series, he just didn’t finish his sentences. I didn’t know what was wrong then, of course, that all came up later – but he was clearly a very, very bright guy but he was a terrible lecturer. But there were biological reasons for that.”
Apart from Babbage, Norman believes Turing is probably the acknowledged starting point of British computing despite the fact that he never actually had a computer. Norman says: “The idea of the computer had come up in the same way that, when RUR, Rossum’s Universal Robots, that play was written, the author just talked about robots as though they existed and that’s fine, that’s how it is with art and so forth. But the ideas that he (Turing) had, which basically come down to the store programme, were twenty years and more ahead of its time. So that puts England, Britain at least, ahead of everybody, really……Turing’s whole idea was, ‘If you’ve got all these numbers, some of these numbers are data, some of these numbers are programme, somehow stuck in a box of some sort, this is what would happen.’ And so, Turing’s name is, in a way, he’s the top, he’s the leader of the whole thing.”
Turing provided a theoretical underpinning to say that, if you have a box that works like this, then it is capable of solving any known algorithmic problem. It is a test; if you have a computer that acts like a Turing machine then your computer must be able to solve any problem you give it, given enough time and resources.
The Bombe and Colossus
Turing is recognised for his work in 1939, at Bletchley Park, where he developed the initial design for an electro-mechanical programmable computer (the Bombe) to help decode the messages being sent by German’s via their enigma machines. Norman says: “Turing realised that although the Wrens, very, very bright ladies who could all solve Times crosswords and play chess, knew how to do it, they were human beings and human beings aren’t as fast as electronics.” He adds: “The machine was on the edge of being a computer. It was a one-time thing, it wasn’t really programmable, but its job was to help these Wrens decode.”
Norman describes how Turing turned to Dollis Hill, the Post Office research centre, which would later move to Martlesham, for their electronics expertise: “The combination of Turing, on the one hand, and the people at Dollis Hill, on the other, produced firstly the Bombes and then the big one Colossus.”
Turing, recognised as one of the top-rated intellectuals at Bletchley, co-ordinated with others on the work, including Gordan Welchman who refined the Bombe in 1940, and Shaun Whylie, from Cambridge. Normans says: “Shaun Wylie and Turing were buddies, they were at Princeton together doing their PhDs. And when Turing got this job (at Bletchley), the first thing he did was ring Shaun Wylie and say, ‘Come and join me.’ And so, Shaun Whylie left Trinity Hall and went down there and came back at the end of the war.”
Between 1943-45, Tony Flowers, also working at Bletchley Park, designed a set of computers called Colossus to help break the Lorenz cipher. Alan Turing’s use of probability in cryptoanalysis contributed to the design. Norman says: “Again, with Colossus, you couldn’t suddenly do something else with it, you had to plan what to do and rework it and do that thing. So, it’s one programme at a time, including rebuilding the machine, really.” He adds: “I think the most important thing you can say about Colossus was, and the same with the ENIAC in the States, they really learned how to handle large numbers of valves, what the Americans call tubes, hundreds of them. All of these early things all led slowly to big things, fast things.”
Norman on Post-war Manchester and Cambridge
After the war, Manchester and Cambridge became the UK’s two main centres of computing, with the development of various machines at Manchester including the Manchester Baby, and the EDSAC at Cambridge, where Norman was studying mathematics. Norman went into the Cambridge maths lab in 1956 where he says the EDSAC was “running absolutely superbly, we were writing programmes until the steam came out of our pens.”
Norman’s first encounter with computers happened while working at the Admiralty where he did some patchboard programming on an electro-mechanical machine. He explains: “If you regarded those as computers, which they very, very basically were, I was probably the first student to have already done some programming before I got up to Cambridge. But when I got there, and then I realised that EDSAC was up and running and so forth, I just told everybody about it.” Unfortunately, his fellow mathematics students didn’t share Norman’s excitement, he adds: “We were three or four mathematicians at Trinity Hall then, and even they couldn’t grab the excitement that there was to be able to solve different equations at high speed and get answers out in no time was heady stuff.”
A committee, including Eric Mutch, Stan Gill and David Wheeler who invented the subroutine, prioritised access to the computer. Norman explains: “Different people were on this thing and there, in all of that, EDSAC acted as a catalyst to finding out what was going on in science in Cambridge.”
Norman spent his time doing work for JCP Miller, Jeff Miller whom he describes as a numerical analyst or ‘Mr Numbers’. He says: “He was a wonderful old chap, just a gorgeous chap. He had a global network of numerical analysts and he knew about all these old people who’d centuries ago, come up with ideas for getting numerical solutions to continuous equation problems.” Norman was given the job of ‘churning’ these out; he continues: “There’s not much more you could do, you only had 1,024 words and say, half of that was data, and half was programme, and I was his sort of numbers slave. And he could look at results and say, ‘Norman, you’ve got an error there in your programme’. But it wasn’t handling data, there was no data. Computers weren’t data handlers. They were just calculations and you can do enormous amounts of calculations on a 1K machine. EDSAC 2 was a 1K machine to start with; it wasn’t until after two or three years that they realised that they needed to get more core which meant more bits in the address register, so they had to do quite a bit of post-engineering.”
Norman on Maurice Wilkes
Norman describes Maurice Wilkes who is credited with inventing the concept of micro-programming, as ‘the nicest, most generous, wonderful guy. Norman believes that computers were built in universities because there were people like Wilkes and so forth who wanted high speed arithmetic done. He says: “They got the money from here, there and everywhere, to do it. Wilkes was fantastic at getting money. A profit motive was no way of getting computing started because it was pretty clear to anyone who thought about it, and there probably weren’t many, that computers weren’t profitable.”
Norman also admires Wilkes networking and publishing skills, he explains: “I think most well-known people are university people, because they publish, they get read and they go to meetings. Of course, the one who did it more than anybody else was Maurice himself, he was always off to things. He had terrific contacts, he had this global network of people. He would go to New York and he’d pop off in Pittsburgh and pop off somewhere else and so forth. Everyone knew him, he was welcome everywhere.”
He goes on to tell how when he went into teaching mathematics in Ipswich in his retirement, Maurice sent a letter to his class; “I happened to say to the class, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to have dinner with the guy who invented a computer’ – slight exaggeration of course. And one of the boys said, ‘Oh, please thank him from us for inventing the computer’, thinking just something in his pocket, and saving us from a boring life’. I saw Maurice and told him what these boys had said and so he wrote a letter to them and he said to me, ‘I’m very impressed with the work you’re doing, Norman, keep it up and so forth’. I ran this letter off and I handed it to them, and I said, ‘Look, this is a historical letter, never lose them or make a few copies’ and so forth, and one copy of that was put up in a glass case in the school.”
Pres Eckert and EDVAC
Norman and Pres both worked for Univac and met from time to time and in the Rand symposium which was held every year in California. Pres was working with John Mauchly on EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), one of the earliest electronic computers. Norman says of him: “He was one of the most impressive guys that I ever met. If you’ve seen the picture of Pres Eckert, he has this high shaved head and it sort of radiates intelligence. He was an incredible person to be with, fast as anything and just bright. You know, through life, when you get to ninety you’ve met every kind of person there is and he just stands out, absolutely.”
EDVAC was detailed in a report produced by John Von Neumann report in 1945; the report did not include recognition of either Pres or John’s contribution. Norman says: “One thing that surprised me, when I was doing some re-reading recently, was that von Neumann was acting as a sort of consultant to the work they were doing on EDVAC. Well, the last thing in the world that Pres Eckert would need would be a consultant. If anybody wanted to know anything, they’d ask Pres Eckert and he’d give them an answer right away. So, then I’d always thought there would have been a protest on the part of Pres Eckert and John Mauchly, when that report came out, and a couple of days ago I read that there was.”
Norman on 'Academics or Engineers?'
In response to a question about whether David Wheeler, Maurice Wilkes, Pres Eckert and the likes were academics or engineers, Norman describes them as a breed of their own; neither engineers nor academics. He says of David; “He was this ingenious bloke who showed up for coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. To be around David Wheeler, like to be around Pres Eckert, was in itself, something from heaven, to be able just to chitchat with them and so forth’.
He continues: “You had chaps who were basically mathematicians, they were good programmers and so forth. We weren’t engineers. I’m not an engineer. But we do a lot of engineering. With David, Maurice and Stan and so forth, they did a lot of engineering, but they weren’t engineers. They weren’t academics because they did things. They were lying on the floor working the whole night operating the machine. They were a different … I’m so glad that I fell in with computer programmers because it’s a different type of homo sapiens. You can only know this if you do it, it’s strange.”
Norman on Konrad Zuse, Peter Naur, Grace Murray Hopper, Jackson W Granholm
Norman was introduced to Konrad Zuse by Rutishauser; Norman describes Rutishauser as the father of the first ALGOL: “ALGOL, of course, followed Fortran as being a sort of arithmetical language for programming. It became a good academic language. I think Fortran was a good industrial language, ALGOL was an academic language, but you didn’t need two, one was enough.”
Norman and Zuse met in the summer of 1963, in Helsinki. Zuse, who had just retired, talked to the Norman and the group of computer experts he was with about his machines, his language; he was credited with the invention of the first electromechanical relay computer. Norman describes him as being ‘way ahead of anybody in Britain or the United States’.
Zuse’s first machine, the Z1, was made at home in 1936, funded with money given to him by his grandmother.
While establishing the computing department in the university in Trondheim, Norman met Peter Naur, a Dane who changed Rutishauser’s ALGOL 58 to ALGOL 60. Norman says that Peter was well-known around the world, he was the Naur of the Backus-Naur form. John Backus invented Fortran. Naur invented ALGOL and BNF was the Backus-Naur form.
At Univac, Norman met Grace Murray Hopper who invented Cobol, Common Business Oriented Language in 1959. Norman says: “She was a Rear-Admiral, she started off as a programmer and invented the Cobol language and she was well-known for carrying a piece of string around in her jacket pocket and, in the middle of a discussion, would produce it. It was a foot and a half long, or something like that, and she would hold it up and say, ‘This is how far an electron moves in a microsecond.’ She was a DAR, a Daughter of the American Revolution.”
While working at Boeing, Norman met Jack Granholm who is credited with the earliest recorded usage of the word ‘kludge’, used in a 1962 article entitled ‘How to design a Kludge’. Norman describes him as ‘good at joining all sorts of incompatible machinery together’.