Knowledge is Power

Between 1968 and 1970, I was in the sixth form at Southend High School for Boys, where I studied Physics, Chemistry, Pure Maths and Applied Maths. One of my maths teachers was particularly inspirational (some years later we played hockey together for the Old Southendians). Sadly, he was to die relatively young. Like many inspirational teachers, he was a bit eccentric but he also had a good sense of humour and was warm hearted and fair. He was a good teacher, who had no trouble controlling his classes. His name was Alan “Willy” Drummond. I recall him trying to interest his boys in computing, an industry in its infancy, most people were almost entirely unaware of, but he felt it had a huge potential for growth and to be involved at this early stage might be a good career choice.

When I left school, I decided to study my then favorite subject, Chemistry, at Queen Mary College, part of London University. Mindful of my former teacher’s advice, I got to do a course in computing. My main recollections were programming in a high level language, Fortran, where we had to present our programs on punched cards, which were then submitted to compile, link and execute as part of an overnight batch run on the College’s large ICL 1900 Mainframe, running under the George 2 operating system. One error, however inconsequential, meant having to correct our mistake, to re-submit the next day. My first programming assignment was to update football league tables with the latest results. Before getting it right, I managed to get the program going in an infinite loop, thereby incurring my department a huge bill.

When I left university, I became a schoolteacher and did this for three years before deciding teaching was not for me. It was then I entered the computer industry (a relatively easy and logical move) and remained in that line of work between 1977 and 2001, including for the last 12 years running my own, one man band, business as a “computer contractor”, although I did not especially set the industry alight! Modest or not, I had found my services were in demand and well rewarded. After that, I became fully embroiled in community work. I reflect on my career and the various transitions in my “Outside the Camp” book, available from this website.

As I recalled in my book, and false modesty aside, while hardly an exceptional computer professional, it did give me a good living, financial independence and a degree of job satisfaction. I have seen huge and rapid progress in the industry, which continues unabated. I like to think in some of the projects I was involved in, in various capacities, especially in the area of telecommunications, that some of my technical input still plays a part, maybe when it comes to controlling traffic lights, routing data or Sat Navs. I remain grateful to Mr. Drummond who helped open my eyes to such possibilities.

Nowadays, I use computers but only as a very handy tool. I value something that very few people foresaw back in 1970, the ability to communicate with people all over the world and being able to access a significant chunk of all available knowledge because of the world wide web and the means to access it. I can also do things like preparing this piece of prose to afterward post on my blog. But otherwise, I am an ignoramus. Things have moved on significantly since my day and my interest nowadays in IT is almost non-existent. I sometimes have to consult my 16 year old son to help fathom out yet another annoying change to Microsoft Office or manage my blog.

I recall several years back preparing an IT quiz that highlighted how much things have changed over a relatively short period of time. There was the head of IBM, the world’s leading computing manufacturer for many years, who saw little use for computers beyond a small number of large machines. There was the head of DEC, the world’s second leading manufacturer, who no way saw a market for personal computers. There was Lord Alan Sugar who was convinced that while money could be made selling hardware, that was not the case for software. Then there was Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, whose products still dominate the computers we use, who saw no reason for investing in more than extremely (by today’s standards) modest memory for his computers and that little profit can be made through being able to access the Internet.

The genius of Gates of course is that he rapidly changed when he realized he was wrong and the rest, as they say, is history. I well recall the entrance of Microsoft into the computing realm that had up to then been dominated by the big mainframe and medium sized computer manufacturers. His MS-DOS operating system for use in home computers was inferior to many comparable products at the time but he managed to make it a de-facto industry standard and later did the same thing with Windows. One of the morals is that while being technically good is worthwhile, in order to make money you need to lay down standards and meet needs and expectations around you, especially when these are not being otherwise met.

If I were to stand before today’s sixth form maths or computing students, I’m not sure I would advise them in the same way as Mr. Drummond did me and my peers, but my gut feeling is there are still excellent, computer related, opportunities to be seized that require both technical and commercial acumen and a determination to succeed. I am reminded of the story, semi- apocryphal, regarding Nathan Rothschild, a founder of the highly influential and wealthy Rothschild banking dynasty. When Wellington defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo (1815), Rothschild received the news before anyone else as it was passed to him by carrier pigeons. As a result, he made a financial killing by buying up British government bonds, before others got wind of what happened, and the price shot up.

It would be a gross understatement to say that technology has moved on since Nathan Rothschild’s day, but it is quite clear in the area of finance, specifically when it comes to making as much money as you can, there are now available ever faster and more powerful computers that can transmit considerably more data than what a carrier pigeon can carry, all round the world, and do so in a matter of nano-seconds! These can also make decisions and act on them, based on that information, and thus by-pass human intervention altogether. While from a moral point of view this may not be an application that especially excites, it is quite clear in every aspect of life, computer technology plays a part, with scope still for more.

This is one of many examples we could cite in order to illustrate that “knowledge is power”. This saying was first attributed to Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) although the underlying wisdom goes back to the Bible: “a wise man is strong, a man of knowledge increaseth strength” Proverbs 24:5. My point is that what was true then is just as true now, and IT/computing can be a means to realize this truth, as I found. My hope is that whoever reads and takes heed of this will find that power and use it for good purposes. To an extent I did; my regret is that I could have made more of the opportunity, and of course I thank Mr. Drummond, who helped show me the way!

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