Alumni Voices had the pleasure of talking to Professor Ian Pyle, founding professor of the Computer Science department at York (1973-1985). Here he shares his unique insights into software engineering in its early beginnings, his time as Head of the Computer Science Department in the 1970s, and finally, his thoughts on the future of technology in a digital age.
1968: ‘An important year for computing’
Before coming to teach at York, Ian Pyle was at the forefront of some of the biggest advancements happening in software engineering in the UK. Working on the ‘Linesman project’ at Harwell, Ian taught programmers how to use computers for the UK’s defence system against air attacks.
‘’1968 is an important year for me and an important year for computing. It was five years before I came to York and there were three important events: one international, one continental, and one national.
Firstly, I helped to organise an event for people all over the world to contribute papers about their work in computing. It was a meeting of the ‘International Federation for information processing societies’. I was responsible for the software component of this: I had all of the world’s current software, under my eyes. After that conference, I organised the group to write a report about the state of Computer science research in 1968 – which became a baseline report1.
The second event in 1968 was at a conference organised by NATO in Germany, which created the phrase ‘software engineering’2. At that time the advances in computer hardware were huge but software was being left behind. People were realising the great difficulty of writing good, effective, reliable computer software. It was called a ‘software crisis’. This meeting in Germany studied that problem and recognised that the ways of writing software were not good enough for doing big projects. When it’s a project that is beyond the capability of a single person, you have to take a different approach involving how the whole process is organised – that’s why they call it software engineering.
That tied up with what I was doing at that time, on the national level: a project called ‘Linesman’. ‘Linesman’ was about the defence of the United Kingdom against air attack. Not against ballistic missiles, but conventional aircraft. It started in the early 1960s, with big radar stations established looking over the North Sea. It was intended that operators would look at the radar signals transmitted to and organised centrally, and decide how to respond.
While the NATO conference was talking about software engineering, I was in the group that was trying to do it. We needed to make the computers allow people picking up radar signals to coordinate, identify the threat and decide what our response would be. We needed computers to organise these messages, but at that time, nobody knew how to program them to cooperate. Harwell staff were brought in to solve that problem.”
“While the NATO conference was talking about software engineering, I was in the group that was trying to do it.”
Alongside his colleagues at Harwell, Ian wrote the book of instructions on the creation of that software system in 1971. Entitled ‘The Software Standard’, the manual detailed how to program the Linesman defence system3.
“Our book, ‘The Software Standard’, was the first book on software engineering in the UK. It was essentially the instructions to be able to programme the radar defence system, covering who had to do what, when. That book was the beginning of practical software engineering. It was completely focussed on the project, and was classified under the Official Secrets Act, so could not be widely used. It has recently been declassified.
Then in the early 1970s, programmers used the book on the ‘Linesman’ project. The main problem we were working on then was to enable the people to communicate about the radar data, which needed the computers to intercommunicate reliably. It turned out that it needed far more effort to keep the computers working together, and communicating with one another, than it did to process the radar data.4
As we were putting the project together in 1972, I saw the advert for a chair of ‘Computational Science’ at the University of York. I thought, ‘They don’t know what they mean, they don’t understand this. What they really want is somebody who can tell them how to solve the software crisis.’ So I applied for the job, and said, “Don’t call it Computational Science, call it Computer Science”. The name stuck.”
“I applied for the job, and said: “Don’t call it Computational Science, call it Computer Science”. The name stuck.”
Founding the Computer Science department at the university
In 1973, Ian Pyle was appointed Founding Professor of Computer Science. By that time, the ‘Linesman‘ project had been successfully developed and there was an official handover to the Royal Air Force who took it over.5
“I started at York at the turn of the calendar, on 1st of January 1973. I came first to teach people about real computing and real software engineering. Secondly, to do the underlying research that would allow that to be done better.
I realised that the country didn’t teach computing well enough for people to be able to do serious work in it. There were courses and programming classes, but there wasn’t adequate teaching of what I described as grown up computing: software engineering. We needed people who could understand it well enough to be able to do big systems.
When I got to York, I found that there was a small department already running the computing service. The Director was David Burnett-Hall, a mathematician, the only one who had any qualifications at all in this subject, Peter Roberts, Computer Manager, and a few others, notably Ian Wand and Bill Freeman, who had both been physicists like me; John Willmott was also a mathematician, who provided our strength in Numerical Analysis (formerly a fringe area of Mathematics, now a fringe area of Computer Science!).
They were ready and welcoming to my ideas, but we were short of one area of computing, which was the use of computers in business. I brought in Colin Tully so we had good coverage of the subject. I got them together, and made the environment. Together, they created our first teaching syllabus for the department.
A computer science, and a computing service
With advice from O&M specialists, Ian also made the important decision to split the department. There was the teaching side, and a computing service side which provided computing functionality for the rest of the university.
“We had one department doing both teaching and service. Importantly, the computing service had already been running before I came to York. As well as supporting research (the original justification for having it), the computing service also did the university administration: it oversaw the salaries and financial expenditure for the university.
With the computing service, I wanted to make our computers more accessible across the university. Particularly in the non-scientific subjects, such as English and History. The more I could get people outside the computing department to use a computer and benefit from it, the better I felt I was doing my job.
Firstly, we had to get students to feel familiar with using a computer – to be able to say who they were and what they wanted. Early computers could only read punched cards or paper tape, and had to be programmed to do each job. The staff in the department could advise them on what facilities were available, and help with getting the programs right. We produced detailed instruction about using the service. Although this was part of our service, it was a kind of teaching, at a very basic elementary level.
On the teaching side of the department (the computer science side) we focused on teaching students how to exploit computing facilities more generally. While most would have done some form of programming at school, there’s a completely different strategy for how you work in a team and get computers to talk to each other.
We’ve now got the internet, where computers can communicate seamlessly – but back then, each computer had to be connected to another computer through an electric wire. You could only send a signal between the two. Strictly just a series of ups and downs which would correspond to a number or a letter, to make a word. So our main focus was teaching students this process: how to program computers to intercommunicate with each other, and the rest of the world.”
Challenges and setbacks
Although Computer Science grew rapidly at the university, this success didn’t come without its own setbacks and challenges.
“There was a story about somebody in the administration who spoke to one of my colleagues and said: “What’s all this about computer science? We might as well have a lawnmower science. Where is the science?”
Obviously, the person didn’t understand it. At the time, everyone knew what Physics was. We all knew what Linguistics or Economics was, but computers were just seen as tools or machines – why should we bother with studying them? There was a general attitude of tolerance, but not enthusiasm.
“At the time, everyone knew what Physics was. We all knew what Linguistics or Economics was, but computers were just seen as tools or machines – why should we bother with studying them?”
I also remember at that time, there was a problem of space for laboratories and seminar rooms. ‘Why do you need more? Why do you need a laboratory for a computer?’. At that time, the Physics department had a great big tower next to the lake. The numbers of students applying for Physics were diminishing, and they were having trouble recruiting students. So I joked: “Why don’t Computer Science and Physics change places, we’ll take the tower and you can have this little room on the other side!”
We eventually got a new extension, but it was very slow. We had to take a very careful path with the university in order to find room. For instance, we needed to have a room to put lots of the computer terminals in so that students and people around the university could use them. It was a tricky process, but we were able to get a computer room in Vanbrugh. Students were excited by the possibility of sending messages to each other, or doing calculations via a computer.
Overall, the biggest challenge was with the University to appreciate the size and importance of the subject. To provide the space and the staff, in order to be able to supervise and provide the equipment the students would need. They did to some extent, but it was a real struggle.”
Thoughts for the future
After 10 years in the department, Ian left the university at the end of 1985. He continued to work in the computer industry, and then went on to teach at Aberystwyth university, before finally retiring.
“I’ve really enjoyed retirement. I’ve enjoyed travelling, visiting places, and not doing very much computing.
A couple of years ago my wife died, and I had to rebuild my life. That’s why I have been coming back to the university to re-engage with computing. I’m particularly concerned with the downside of computing. I’m worried about the negative side of what has been done with computers.
Forecasting the future is very difficult to do. I see technology being ever more fundamentally important for our lives. The big problem is going to be that computing and automation will take over what previously were skilled jobs. For tasks that require fine tuning or organising, if it is well enough understood for the right algorithm to define how to do it it, a computer can do that work more consistently and more cheaply than people – which removes a skilled job from the range of opportunities that people can do. So, there’s a serious social problem arising from the removal of what previously were skilled jobs.
The other side of that point is that the jobs that can’t be done by a computer are currently very undervalued work, and are treated as the lowest possible kind of work. If it’s ‘unskilled’, a computer can’t do it. It’s where there’s a human relationship. Teaching in front of a bunch of people for example, talking to them, motivating them, negotiating a contact – being there as a personal presence. Human value is something that computers don’t get.
I think there are certain vital qualities that are distinctively human. The more computers advance the things that they can do, the more we realise what they can’t do.
“The more computers advance the things that they can do, the more we realise what they can’t do. Computers don’t have the human qualities of respect, good behaviour and human values.”
Computers don’t have the human qualities of respect, good behaviour and human values.”
Overall I’m very pleased that we have taught so many people since my arrival at York and that they obviously have done well. I’m proud of how the department has grown in the 50 years since it began.
“Overall I’m very pleased that we have taught so many people since my arrival at York … I’m proud of how the department has grown in the 50 years since it began.”