'Too far ahead of its time': Britain, Burroughs and real-time banking in the 1960s

Martin, Ian (2010). 'Too far ahead of its time': Britain, Burroughs and real-time banking in the 1960s. In: Society for the History of Technology Annual Meeting, 30 Sep - 03 Oct 2010, Tacoma, USA.


In 1969, the popular British television programme, Tomorrow's World, featured an item that predicted point of sale terminals in every high street shop ushering in the country's computerised cashless economy. The basis for the show's prediction was a succession of ambitious projects initiated by the British banks, each with the aim of introducing a new real-time computer banking system to its network of branches by 15 February 1971. The banks, threatened by state-sponsored competition, inspired by the success of SABRE, American Airlines' real-time airline reservations system, and pressured by forthcoming decimalisation, all chose 'D-Day' as their immovable deadline. And, in each case, US computer manufacturer, Burroughs, promised a B8500 central super computer linked to a nationwide network of TC500 intelligent terminal satellites. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Tomorrow's World, the programme's predicted coming of the cashless society was wildly optimistic. But so too, it turned out, were the plans of the banks. Real-time banking in Britain never materialised in the 1970s, let alone by February 1971, as one by one the banks abandoned their plans.

In this paper, I revisit the case of Burroughs and Barclays Bank. Blending oral testimonies with archival sources, I explore a consumer perspective of coterminous computing labour as the two companies set about making the idea of real-time banking a reality. I reveal how a community of practice made up of Barclays' computer programmers and Burroughs' engineers was able to transgress established business boundaries in pursuit of a technical ideal, only to eventually become architect of its own fate. The co-construction and 'interpretive flexibility' of this technological failure is considered in light of the existing literature, with particular attention given to the attribution of blame. In this case, where there was attribution, it was judged to have lain with the technology, which was simply regarded as 'too far ahead of its time.�

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