History of the UK Semi-Conductor Industry and can we learn from it?
This blog post aims to give an overview of the history of semi-conductors and computer industry in the UK. So no all topics and areas will be covered. It will have a focus on the parts I find most interesting. So if you are looking for a detailed history this is not the place. It will use the overview to give ideas of what we could do to better prepare ourselves for the future and current challenges we are facing.
In the UK, many of the early computer projects benefited from technological developments at the three Second World War R&D centres of excellence, namely: Bletchley Park, the Telecommunications Research Establishment and the Admiralty Signal Establishment. Leading scientists and engineers from these centres formed the nucleus of most UK computer design groups in the late 1940s.
The world's first commercially available computer was the Ferranti Mark I, delivered in February 1951 and based on a Manchester University prototype. The first computer to undertake business data processing was probably LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), based on the design of the Cambridge University EDSAC. LEO ran its first simple clerical program in April 1951.
The market was slow to take off. Most of the pioneering digital computers were, by modern standards, rather large, expensive and unreliable. Most could only be programmed in machine code. Manufacturers provided very little software.
In the early 1950s, analogue computers were preferred, over digital computers, for many applications where speed and compactness were required. Examples are areas such as defence and process control. In the business world, electro-mechanical punched-card equipment was the tried and trusted means for office data processing in commercial enterprises.
Ina collaboration between the Royal Signals & Radar Establishment (RSRE) and Plessey Semiconductors they worked to produce the world’s first model of an Integrated Circuit (IC) for the 1957 International Symposium on Components in Malvern, Worcestershire – a year before Texas Instruments made the chip that was eventually patented as the world’s first IC.
In the 1960s the UK Government funnelled money into Marconi-Elliott Microelectronics, Plessey Semiconductors and Ferranti Semiconductors. In 1967 it gave Elliott Automation a contract to install a metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) process (a year before Intel was founded expressly to develop MOS). Government money for chip research was $8m in 1968 – about a third as much as the American government was spending.
However, a Government-sponsored reorganisation of the UK electronics industry in the late 1960s saw mergers between GEC, AEI and English Electric, which had severe repercussions on the UK microelectronics industry. In 1968, the UK’s most successfully enduring semiconductor company, CML Microcircuits of Essex was founded and is still flourishing, making consumer and communications ICs, today.
Seven years later GEC tried to get back into the standard IC business via a joint venture with Fairchild. The venture was abandoned after Fairchild was taken over by the French company Schlumberger.