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Technology 50 years on

16 July 2019

As the world celebrates the anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, we take a look back at how corporate life has changed in the past 50 years.

In July 1969, man was taking the first bold steps into the unknown. 

Armed with little more than a punch card and a pen, humanity was, for the first time, using cash machines in banks across the country.

Meanwhile, of course, nearly 240,000 miles away, three astronauts were orbiting the Earth’s moon, with two of them preparing for successful landing on its surface. The scale of the achievement of the United States’ Apollo programme, in a time when many people had never seen what we think of today as a computer, let alone ever used one, is astounding.

Indeed, the few computers that were in use in offices such as those of Barclays, were so large that they took up a space equivalent to a medium-sized family home, and the personal computer was yet to be invented. Quite a world away from the supercomputers that we all carry in our pockets today.

Those numbers – so often quoted – are still astounding. The Apollo Guidance Computer^ that flew to the moon was state-of-the-art with just 64Kbytes of memory – most computers today will have 125,000 times that amount with at least 8GB of memory.

While humankind was taking its first steps in another world, the corporate world was being transformed by computers as well.

Here at Barclays, we were pioneering various banking firsts using computers: we had already become the first British bank to use computers for branch bookkeeping. In August 1969 – as reported in our staff bulletin – the Watford Junction branches’ bookkeeping computer went ‘online.’ Long before the internet had been invented, this meant that a customer’s transactions would be linked to and recorded by a central computer (in Willesden, NW London, pictured).

Alan Duncan, who was Head of Planning and Research, said at the time: “This type of computer system, where transactions entered on the branch terminal are immediately entered on the customer’s account, is called a real time system. It means a customer can ask whether certain transactions have gone through on his account, and be given the answer at once.”

The computer centre was central to plans to automate and centralise bookkeeping, something that laid the foundations for the types of banking we all do now – with the ability to check your balance and the status of a payment at any time using apps on our phones.

Barclays celebrated the successful flight of Apollo 11 by publishing a poem, titled Another Eagle:

On a flat piece of rock in the Sea of Tranquillity
Stands a four-legged but bodiless bird;
Its stance lepidopterous argues mobility,
Yet for a fortnight the thing hasn't stirred.

News has gone out to the Lunar Equators,
Lunar canals open Lunatic locks,
Moon-people, bolder now, come from their craters,
Limpetting noiselessly over the rocks.

Now they address it in language most cordial,
Pushing a two-headed chief to the fore;
Hope that its feet have got over their ordeal
(Tripods themselves, they're enchanted with four).

As the chieftain concludes his melodious bleeping
He waits for the answer he thinks may be due.
Gets none. Concludes that their visitor's sleeping.
Comes a bit closer to better his view.

On one silver leg, among signs of terrific
Stressing and blasting and scorching with flame
Earthmen have stencilled a black hieroglyphic:
E. A. G. L. E. So that is its name.

At Barclays, our eagle is highly delighted,
Awaiting the moment when Moon-banks are Go;
For one thing is certain, wherever we're sited,
Moonfolk will favour the bank that they know.

Fifty years later, we thought it would be interesting to ask our Head of Manufacturing, Transport and Logistics what another fifty years could herald for business.

Lee Collinson believes the advent of commercial space travel would mean a revolution in global trade: “Imagine a world where AI-piloted drones will be able to dock with and transport goods from a space-based hub. Regional hubs as we know them now could be linked by a series of ‘global’ space-based hubs, reducing the cost and time to transport goods around the world dramatically."

“Using big data and AI to link these hubs, stock levels and routes would be managed down to a fine level of detail, giving the customer receiving the goods up-to-the-minute precision in knowing when they would receive their orders. This would speed up supply chains and reduce the need for stockpiling; freeing up cash flow for manufacturers to invest in research and development.”

As the fourth industrial revolution takes root today, with the advent of artificial intelligence, 5G mobile networks and automation, isn’t it notable that no one has been back to the moon – or indeed any other world beyond our own – since the end of the Apollo programme?

We’ll end this article with a poem, just as we did fifty years ago:

At Barclays, our eagle remains highly delighted,
No longer waiting for moon-banks to grow,
For one thing is certain, the future’s ignited,
Our clients can still rely on the bank that they know.

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