Pioneering Computer Science Education

By David Clarke

The Elliott 803b
Computer Conservation Society
The 803b Console
Peter Onion
The School Hall (1st floor) and Refectory (Ground Floor)
David Clarke
Head's Office and Admin
David Clarke
Admin, Domestic Science and Music Room
David Clarke
The Paper Tape Reader
Peter Onion

Even though I am 64 now, I programmed my first computer at age 13 i.e. in 1964.

It seems impossible to imagine, but because of a resourceful school teacher and unique circumstances, it is true.

I attended Hatfield Technical Grammar School, commonly referred to as just Hatfield School in College Lane, from 1962 to 1969.

The photos below show the school as it is today i.e. The Hutton Hub, part of the University of Hertfordshire. The structure of the school is unchanged from the 60’s, and is exactly as I remember it.

The building is almost certainly named after Dr. Hutton, the school’s headmaster for most of the time I was there.

Behind the music room, the leftmost part of the building, middle floor, was most importantly, The Tuck Shop!

Hatfield School was arguably the best equipped school in the country for the study of science and technical subjects. For example, the science block boasted the following well equipped laboratories and their associated prep rooms:

Advanced Physics
Advanced Biology
General Science
Advanced Chemistry
Radio Chemistry. This small laboratory was for the study of the chemistry of radio-active substances (Yes, really! It’s impossible to imagine nowadays).

As well as the usual metalwork and woodwork shops, the school also featured an engineering workshop that would shame many modern medium sized businesses. With many lathes, pillar drills, electric hacksaws, bench grinders, milling machines as well as a fully equipped forge.

The other thing that the school had was a swimming pool, and it was this that provided the mechanism for the study of Computer Science. The connection is not at all obvious, but the Hatfield Technical College, subsequently Hatfield Polytechnic and now The University of Hertfordshire, had a computer.

This was a then state of the art Elliott 803b.

As can be seen this was no small piece of kit, occupying a largish room and comprising 4 central processing cabinets, 3 magnetic film transports (not 4 as shown in this photo), 2 punched tape readers, 1 tape punch, a control console, and 3 teletype machines.

Its control console was a very simple affair.

Most input was performed using the tape reader.

All photos used with permission.

The magnetic film transports were unusual. We have all seen 1/2″ magnetic tape drives in old science fiction movies, but these were different. Imagine opening your old 35mm film camera and taking out the film. It has sprocket holes down both sides. Well, these transports used film like this except that it was coated with magnetic material, and each spool contained about 1800 feet of film. They were stored in metal canisters and were very heavy.

Since the college at that time didn’t have a swimming pool, a very resourceful Maths teacher, Mr W. Tagg (I believe the W was for William and he was known as Bill as I recall) negotiated with the college, that students would be able to use the pool at certain times, if our pupils could have supervised use of the computer, and so the Computer Science course was devised.

I fell in love with the technology straight away, and used to visit the computer suite in my lunch times. I got to know the data centre manager quite well. Although my memory on this is a bit flakey, I recall that his name may have been Mr Crocker (perhaps someone may remember, and correct me if I am wrong). He started to teach me at 12 years old how to run jobs on the machine, and once I was proficient enough, I was able to run jobs for the students while he was on his break.

I taught myself to write programs for this machine, and soon had it playing tunes. A program loop on this machine produces a tone from the console speaker which varies in frequency according to the length of the loop, so by writing a program containing a series of loops each of an appropriate length, you could get it to play any tune you wanted.

All input to the computer was either keyed directly in via the console, or loaded via paper tape. Output from the computer, the results, were punched out on paper tape, and had to be run through a teletype tape reader to get printed output.

The college managed to purchase a BASIC compiler for this computer. This was a really BASIC BASIC, as far removed from modern equivalents like Visual Basic as you can imagine. However, it was this that pupils used to study the art of computer programming, under the careful eye of Mr Tagg.

Hatfield School was the VERY FIRST secondary school in the country to offer Computer Science to A Level. I believe that I was one of the few pupils who were the first in the country to take (and pass) that exam. My program was written in Algol 60. This compiler was a later acquisition by the college. However, to this day, I am still disappointed that I only got a ‘B’. I’d love to know what I could have improved.

Nevertheless, I have spent my entire working life in the Computer industry. It has taken me all over the world, and given me a good living.

I owe all this, and give my thanks, to the amazing Mr. Tagg, Dr. Hutton and other staff at the school.

It also pays tribute to the far sightedness of the education establishment in Hertfordshire at the time.


Have you checked recently the other HS Pages/Posts listed and hotlinked in the list at the top right of this page ? The titles don’t say everything, and new edits and new Posts are being added often.

This page was added on 31/03/2016.

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  • Interested to read about the school’s computing initiatives.

    I was at Hatfield School from 1966-73. I joined the computer club in my 2nd year when I was 12/13 and participated for a year or two. If my recollection is correct, we met one lunchtime each week and the remote terminal was in an office on the ground floor close to the main entrance. I don’t remember who ran the club at that time – it may well have been Bill Tagg, as his name rings a bell.

    We were initially taught Basic, a version I recall being called: BBC3. Thanks to Moira Cree’s post which identifies this at Beginner’s Basic Code, and presumably version 3. The advantage was that with no need for a compiler the code was input onto paper tape offline and then, during the school’s allocated timeslot, the tape could be fed into the remote terminal and the program ran (or not, if there were errors). My first program solved quadratic equations. I recall that we were encouraged to ensure that the program ran successfully under all conditions, ie: recognising when there was only one solution, or when there were no solutions (complex numbers being well beyond year 2 maths). We also wrote programs for some basic statistical analysis, and quite possibly other things.

    We went on to program in machine code and spent quite a lot of time refining programs to sort random lists of number into order and to try to find the quickest method. I don’t remember, however, how the speed of the programs were measured. I found this both an interesting intellectual challenge and a satisfying programming exercise.

    Towards the end of the 60s with the Apollo moon landing approaching someone (I presume in the Technical College) devised a computer game to attempt to land the lunar module. We were given limited access to play the game. The only control was whether to fire the descent thrusters for short durations to slow the descent, with the decision to fire being asked at intervals, of I guess every few seconds. Invariable the mission failed, either the thrusters were fired: too early and too long and the module accelerated away into space; too late and it crashed; or too long and with fuel depleted it crashed. I only had one go, inevitably failing; realising that to perfect a solution would need far more turns than would be available, I didn’t bother with it again.

    Fascinated as I was with programming I don’t know why I drifted away from the computer club. In the 5th form an interest in computing was briefly reawakened. That year our (5R) form teacher was maths teacher Don Morss (until I read the posts on this site I had always assumed his surname was spelt Morse). Don was the custodian of an analogue computer which had the basic building block of an operational amplifier with feedback loops. This enabled the simulation of complex differential equations; although, it was limited by having only 6 to 8 op amps.

    In 1971 I progressed into the lower sixth with the school then relocated to its Travellers Lane site. I didn’t take the opportunity to take computer science A level; I suspect didn’t want the added time pressure of taking a 4th subject and I reckoned that attainment of a decent grade was less likely than in my other subjects; in any case by then the thought of programming as a career had lost its appeal. But the early grounding in computing was to have benefits. At university a short compulsory computing course was undoubtedly made easier by my prior knowledge; although, that course reinforced my antipathy to programming with the need to submit fistfuls of Fortran code on punch-card for compilation, the inevitable rejection of the program during compilation, and time-consuming iterative process of fault finding and waiting to resubmit.

    On a similar subject, prior to 1971 the school had some mechanical adding machines; which I think could be configured to do multiplication (by multiple addition). Who if anyone used them I do not know. In the sixth form I took separate subjects of pure and applied maths to A level, as well as physics. There were only four of us in the pure and applied maths classes: the others being Mick Clarke, Stefan Skanski and Geoff Wallis (if my memory is correct). Pure maths was taught by a new teacher, Ron (I can’t remember his surname) and applied maths by the head of maths (whose name completely eludes me). With such a small class size it was as good as one-to-one teaching and there was a very relaxed atmosphere. Inevitably, we progressed at speed and we took the standard maths A level at the conclusion of the lower sixth year, which with the result under our belts would have done no harm in the university entrance process. But I digress. In 1971 the school had invested in 6 electronic calculators. These had the basic 4 functions and percentage function together a single (or was it two) memories; their size was approximately 20 x 25cm, and 4 or 5cm thick, and were said to have cost about £100 each! As a small sixth form maths class we were able to use them; although, I don’t think they got too much use from us. We were also shown the mechanical adding machines, which amused us for all of about 5 minutes. The provision of electronic calculators was ahead of its time; however, it was not really a sound investment. Before I left the sixth form I had had a Sinclair calculator (kit form), and shortly after that I had progressed to a Commodore scientific calculator; someone else had a HP programmable calculator – all cheaper in 1973 than the school’s 1971 purchases. So if the school had waited a couple of years it would have got far better value for its money – but hindsight is easy.

    Despite my antipathy towards computing I couldn’t escape them in my career and that initial grounding in programming at school was not to be wasted.

    Ian Stephenson.

    By Ian Stephenson (04/05/2022)
  • Used to program on the school computer, way before vdu, msdos and windows et all. My whole career was a in computer tech. There have been interesting changes since those days..

    By Peter (30/12/2021)
  • I was at HS from 55 to 62 and so missed the computing start-up. However, as my Father’s son, I was party to his remarks about his purchase of a Teletype machine for use as a remote terminal from the College computer. He was distressed at what seemed to him the excessive price of the machine – far greater than the other office equipment, or so I understood. It had to be explained to him that it used 8-bit serial communication so was able to ‘see’ when a character was erroneously transmitted (by the 8th ‘parity’ bit) compared to other office machines which used 7-bits and didn’t care less if characters were wrong.

    I too enjoyed computing at university and subsequent employment where we programmed a PDP 8 which had a high-speed paper tape reader. With an endless loop of tape and a digital to analogue converter, the tape reader produced the percussion in real time as the sailor’s hornpipe came out of the loudspeaker. Such was life in the fast lane of 1960’s computing.

    By MichAEL hUTTON (05/04/2021)
  • I wonder if the BASIC language you remember was BBC (beginners’ basic code) which was a glorified Machine Code. I believe it was invented by Bill Tagg himself.

    By Moira Cree (formerly Bain) (02/05/2020)
  • Hi David, I was there 1964-1971. I too had a career in computers and have travelled the world thanks to the inspirational work of Hatfield School. I was there when they replaced the 803b with a PDP System 10 which I used for my A-level.

    By Mike Bray (21/11/2017)
  • I well remember the Elliot 803. I was at the school from 1959-1966 and spent a lot of time programming this machine in Algol 60. I did not take A-level computer science but enjoyed learning what was then a very new subject for fun. Indeed, Bill Tagg was such a good and enthusiastic teacher and I shall not forget how much he did for me.

    By Ron Horgan (05/09/2017)
  • Hello David, What a lovely detailed piece you have written. I so remember you running around with punch tape and punch cards (as well as collected all the little punched bits and putting them down our necks!!!). But you made the computer punch our names on the tape, which we thought was amazing at the time! You, and I think Stephen Dumpleton were always trying to explain it all to us. Of course my sister Moira was the mathematician, and she got to do all this the following year.

    It’s so good to hear that you are well. Are you still in the area? I should write some memories of my own, but not today. If you use Facebook, look for the group called Hatfield of Yesteryear, which you will find fascinating, but I am also in that group. Lorna Bain (now Joy) PS We were there 1963 to1970 actually, I think you miscalculated that.

    By Lorna Joy (was Bain) (10/05/2017)