Abacus, Calculator, iPotty and Bertie

This month my grandson Bertie has his first Christmas and  in January, birthday and I have more presents to think about buying. Today that made me think about technology because so many possible presents are driven by the silicon chip. Lucinda will be pleased to know that I have rejected all thoughts of buying an iPotty so that he can scan and play with an iPad while sitting doing his business.

Browsing the internet brought back memories of my early interactions with technology and how it has all changed.

I was always good at numbers and liked them. I worked out and wrote down on 8 pieces of paper sellotaped together, a 100 by 100 set of multiplication tables. You might even have said as a kid I was a little OCD about numbers, but thankfully no one had yet invented that branch of psychology.

My favourite ever book was a large picture book of mathematics. That was when I was 8. My next favourite book was the Trachtenberg System of Speed Mathematics which meant as a ten-year-old I learnt to multiply two, five-digit numbers and just write out the answer. On a good day the numbers could be even longer!

Therefore, it was no surprise in 1968 that my selection of ‘A Levels’ was neither broad nor imaginative. Pure Maths, Applied Maths, and Physics meant that I had chosen simply to do lots and lots of maths.

Maybe then it was no surprise that I was in a small cadre who also took a further ‘A level’ in Mathematics and Computing. It was the first year that the syllabus had been set and Dulwich College had built a maths and computer lab. I was among the first to use it.

We had to do a practical as part of the exam and this caused a small stir. Dulwich is an all-boys school with a sister school, James Allen’s Girls’ School, very close by. I started my course work trying to build what is now known as a dating app. I will own up. I was much more motivated by the opportunities this work gave me to make contact with the girls of James Allen’s than any academic study. The school didn’t approve of advanced entrepreneurship and my project was halted.

My second attempt was to try and write a programme to forecast the winners of horse races but that also was stopped, not by the school but by me. In its very simplistic form all that happened was the bookies favourite won. Very obvious if I had given it any proper thought but I was still seething about being stopped on my first project. If only I had learnt of Monte Carlo Simulations earlier, I could have been rich!

The final and submitted project was something pathetic about draughts. I can’t remember what and I wasn’t really interested.

‘A Levels’ completed, nothing much changed because at university I read Economics and Statistics, again choosing the maths based options such as econometrics, micro economics and operational research. Pigs and clover come to mind.

While at university in Leeds I remember new hand held, electronic calculators being sold with Reverse Polish logic. This Is not the time to explain Reverse Polish logic other than the Polish bit refers to the nationality of Jan Łukasiewicz, who invented Polish notation in 1924 and all you need to know is that Reverse Polish is the other way round!!

In the final year of my degree in statistics there were practical sessions which included calculating ‘sum of squares’. As the senior group on the course we were allowed to use the best and most expensive technology of the day, but it had to be signed out and signed back in after the lecture.

What was that technology? It was a calculator, the size of a large book that calculated and stored the ‘sum of squares’.

In 1977 I started work at Coopers & Lybrand. I had joined much earlier but wasted most of my early time as I qualified as an accountant getting transferred to as many fun areas as I could. That is how I first went to Malawi, worked with Sir Kenneth Cork, and had an introduction to consulting.

Now was the time to work. In management consulting full time, if I wrote a report it was typed on a type writer, turned into a metal plate, corrected with Tipex, and sent down to the print room to be printed. Unless booked-in as urgent it would take three days to reappear.

In those early days I learnt to program in Fortran, could read the program on paper tape to debug, and waited overnight for the compiled programme to run before resubmitting it the next day, to correct mistakes.

Enjoyable as it is (at least for me) I am not really just taking a nostalgic walk down memory lane. If I had then I would have written about the huge box, the size of a small car that arrived one day with our new DEC computer which was the forerunner of the tiny, far more powerful PC I am using to write this. I might have written about Maurice Hill, my boss, who had been a Spitfire pilot and was a physicist. He was a specialist in rockets and before joining C&L used to go up in a hot air balloon and have the rockets fired at him, so he could witness their spin and rotation. He was so confident of their poor targeting that he told me that it was far safer if they aimed to hit the balloon than miss it.

No, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

If I really want to understand the massive strides we have taken in technology I only need to check the smart phone by my side which I used today to take a photo of the chassis number of my car and then send to Mercedes to order a spare part.

The truth is that over the 40 years I have been working there have been almost unimaginable changes in technology and the way we work. We have moved from type writers and print shops to real time printing, across a network, possibly on the other side of the world.

This last 40 years have seen technology turbulence and we have coped, we have developed, we have adapted. Need proof?

The absolute number of people in employment (in the UK) has increased. Since 1976 the UK population has increased from 56 million to 65 million. Over this period the number of people working has increased from 24.8 million to 32 million. (I think I have read the ONS statistics properly).

Technology has increased the demand for people to work. Sure, they may be doing different jobs, but they are working.

All the time there are warnings about how we will deal with the future and cope with the expected rapid change in technology. The Luddites had the same fear but they were unfounded.

But thoughts of the future motivate me. 40 years ago, I had no idea what was going to happen. It was clear everything was changing and could only change more quickly. I didn’t know the destination but just the thought of the journey ahead excited me.

How will we cope over the next 40 years? I don’t know but the answers are simple. Another group of kids will take their version of my Maths and Computing ‘A Level’. Another group will pioneer new subjects to study, and just as my generation has done they will cope, develop, and adapt.

We need to put our trust in the new generations – just as we have always done.

Bertie your future will be exhilarating. I could think of nothing better than to be starting my journey again and if we were then be sure you would be carrying your first abacus with us.