Skip to main content

Back to local

I fell into working in computing in the late 1960s at a time when people neither much loved nor hated the machines which are now central to our lives. If they thought about them at all, they were probably faintly, and rather disinterestedly, puzzled by them.

As luck would have it, the very first system I worked on was one which depended on a communications network. The Bank of Scotland Computer Services Limited who had taken me on was developing a system which would put a terminal into each Bank of Scotland branch. Its purpose was to collect transactions and answer some fairly basic queries. And we were the first UK bank to implement such a system. Just; by a matter of weeks before Lloyds Bank.

It's worth doing a "then-and-now" comparison of the technology on my desk with what we used then.

There are two kinds of data memory on computers. The "main" memory in which we hold the programs, the logic directing the computer's decisions, and much of the data it's working on.

The desktop personal computer I am sitting at now in our house, could hold about 16,000,000,000 characters (16 Gigabytes) in "main" memory and cost me just over £1,000. In today's terms, a relatively "top end" machine.

The central computer we used at the Bank for our innovative new system in 1969 could hold 65,000 characters (64 Kilobytes). Cost in late 1960s money £3 million.

To store our data permanently, we also have "data storage". In 1969 that was magnetic disks which could hold 20,000,000 characters (20 Megabytes). Today my desktop machine, which also has magnetic disks, can store 3,000,000,000,000 characters (3 Terrabytes).

But the big change is how rapidly we can move data around on our communication networks that link computers to each other.

In 1969, the equipment in our bank branches sent data to our "big" computer in Edinburgh at about 6 characters a second (50 bits per second). Today my desktop machine can receive about a million characters a second (8.3 Megabits per second). And I fret a bit that I am not yet on superfast broadband which will probably multiply that by ten.

All very fascinating; but "so what"? One final numbers thing before I move on. Four photographs from my digital camera would fill all the data storage in the 1969 computer upon which I first worked. And my camera can take 50 such pictures per second.

The COVID-19 pandemic has moved many more of us into a world where we depend on computers and electronic communications networks for much of our day-to-day activities. And yet in our household, we have been moving gently in the opposite direction. I'll come back to that later.

In the 1980s, Bank of Scotland was essentially a local Bank in Scotland with about a third of the market. We had been around for 290 years, deploying our first computers, simple NCR accounting machines, in the 1950s. And during that time our chief executives, called the Treasurer, would always have been in his fifties or sixties. But with the appointment of a 42-year-old, everything was about to change.

He set us the single target of doubling the size of the Bank in ten years. And empowered every employee to identify how they could help, and then just do it. Tellers were allowed to lend up to £1,000 without referring to anyone more senior. And they were very good lenders. Their bad debts were low.

Fundamentally we could only double in size by expansion in England. Gaining 3% of the English market would achieve that goal. Building new Branches would have been slow and expensive.

We opened a few Branches, targetted at small and medium-sized companies, in first-floor offices in business districts in large urban areas. Southampton was (as far as I recall) the first. The hand-picked managers, go-getters every one, had a direct line to the boss. No middle-management got in the way.

But to make it work, we needed to be able to be a "full-service" bank for our new customers. So we joined up with three banks who had large cash-dispenser networks in England. That meant our customers could take out their cash across England; and Scotland.

But the big innovation was launched at 1100 hours on 25th January 1985 at a press conference in London. This was "HOBS", the Home & Office Banking Service which put a simple, smart landline phone on our customers' desks which enabled them to move money around, check statements and make payments. The cost of doing all this was roughly what it would have cost us to open three conventional High Street Branches.

And we doubled the size of the Bank, at a fairly modest cost, in well under the ten-year target.

For me, and for many others, it changed my banking habits overnight. I have crossed the threshold of a bank branch less than a dozen times since 1985. And then only to pay in an occasional cheque. I don't, of course, write any cheques and have had no means to do so for at least ten years.

With the advent of the Internet in roughly its modern form in about 1990 - I would argue it started with the University of Hawaii's Aloha network in the 1960s; not everyone agrees - I started the move into living almost totally in the electronic world. I created a website for a personal purpose in 1992, now nearly thirty years ago.

All my clothes are now bought online. As is all my technology. And I read all my news online, much via paid subscriptions to publications still also appearing on paper. Paradoxically, I still prefer a physical paper book for reading. Not just because they survive a dooking when I drop them in my bath accidentally.

But curiously in this lockdown period, we are finding a growing proportion of our purchases, still far from a majority, are being made via local shops rather than big online stores.

Because the absence of customers in our streets has forced a change in our local shops. And the cost and technical barriers keeping them from going online have shrunk dramatically. We, and others, are discovering that we prefer local individuality in the products we buy, especially food, and valuing the best of our local shops more than before.

Some of the "online" is very simple. Just taking orders over the phone. The critical part is arranging to deliver or having a pick-up arrangement.

We shall be affected by this nasty virus for some time to come. The date for the end of the pandemic remains invisible. But many of the changes in our behaviour it is bringing, are likely to be permanent.

I see a glimmer of hope for our High Streets. Not by a retreat to 1950s models of doing business.

Rather by leap-frogging the competition from the "big boys" by using modern technology in a focussed and affordable way.

We are recreating relationships between local buyers and local sellers.

Building on mutual trust and understanding of each other.


Popular posts from this blog

Reflections - An interview with SPVR


The Eric Liddell Centre Burns Supper

Welcome to the world of Robert Burns. 558 pieces of writing over a couple of decades, around 400,000 words in total. Not all of it in Scots. Some of it, as his “Grace Before Dinner” illustrates, in English; O thou who kindly dost provide For every creature's want! We bless Thee, God of Nature wide, For all Thy goodness lent: And if it please Thee, Heavenly Guide, May never worse be sent; But, whether granted, or denied, Lord, bless us with content. Amen! Thank you indeed to those who tonight did provide. Some of Burns’ writings, recorded for us long-standing folk songs. An educated man who studied French, Latin and mathematics. Not a rich man, not a poor man; when he died he left the equivalent in today’s money about £40,000. And a man known to this day as a father whose children had many mothers. Every woman in Edinburgh and many beyond seemed to want to explore what he kept in his trousers. Indeed on the very day of his funeral, his last child was born. Burns

A good accident of legislation .. in 1865

Found by accident in the Nairnshire Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Northern Counties - Wednesday, 25 January 1865 WOMEN'S RIGHTS FOREVER! The last mail from Australia has brought us the astounding intelligence that the Legislature of Victoria, having conferred the franchise upon women one of the provisions of their latest reform Bill, the fair voters, in proportionate number exercised their right at the General Election, the result of which is the rare phenomenon of giving an existing Government working majority. One is disposed at first sight to grudge the colony her high distinction. But on examination of all the facts, she has not, after all, so far surpassed in courage, faith, and virtue the other nations mankind might first sight appear. It is true the Victorian Legislature has given the right to women to vote in the election of its members—but, although the name of the colony might suggest that gallantry was its motive, strict truth obliges us to say that n