It’s All There in Black and White…

Alan McPherson (BSc 1965) shares memories of his time at the University of St Andrews, Queens College, Dundee in the 1960s. He describes his final year as an undergraduate and how it changed his career path for ever …

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Alan’s Degree Certificate

“From an early age I wanted to be an engineer, and this influenced my application to St Andrews University, Queens College, Dundee to study electrical engineering. It was, and still is, my opinion that engineers make the world go round. However, although I emerged from Queens College as a graduate engineer, and am still qualified to call myself a Chartered Engineer, my career from the time of leaving university did not follow the path towards heavy electrical engineering I had envisioned when I started. So what caused this change of direction?

In the final year of the undergraduate course, each student had to conduct a series of lab experiments. One experiment in particular involved complicated mathematical calculations that were assisted considerably by a small program run on the ZEBRA digital computer installed at the college (used extensively at that point by research staff from the Physics department for their work on X-Ray crystallography). ZEBRA – an acronym for the Dutch words Zeer Eenvoudige Binaire Reken-Automat (which translates as very easy binary calculating machine) – was the result of a collaboration between mathematicians of the Dutch Post Office and engineers of Standard Telephones and Cables. It was built using about 600 thermionic valves and a similar number of germanium transistors.

This machine was the first ‘proper’ computer I had seen, and I was so impressed that I was given permission to use it unsupervised when it wasn’t being used by the Physics research staff. It filled most of the space in the room, generated prodigious quantities of heat and had to be run continuously to avoid malfunctions provoked by temperature cycling. Before using the computer there would normally be a pause while the windows of the room were opened wide to allow the system to cool down for about 20 minutes.

I learned programming on that computer, becoming familiar first with the interpreted Simple Code programming language and moving on later to the more fundamental Normal Code program running directly on the hardware.

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Graduation, 1965

At that time, computing was still in its infancy – indeed it was barely out of the cradle. After leaving university and enthused with my first experience of computing, I ignored opportunities in the heavy electrical engineering industry and became involved exclusively in the emerging field of the design and development of digital computer systems. I remained in that field for the rest of my working life, working on both hardware and software. In fact, I found that having a good grounding in both hardware and software camps was a positive advantage that not many other design engineers possessed.

Over the years, I was drawn to the secretive field of secure computing, protecting information that has a government security classification. My last position before retirement was as chief systems test engineer for a company specialising in cryptography using high-grade encryption and producing secure systems and products for financial establishments, most UK and European banks, government and military establishments.

Because of that lab experiment in the 1960s and my consequent change of focus, I feel that I have played a small part in the subsequent Digital Revolution, now in full swing. The social consequences of this will be every bit as sweeping and far-reaching as its predecessor the Industrial Revolution, but this time on a global scale and with an immediacy spurred on by the internet and world wide web. This digital revolution still has a long way to run, and the social consequences will be even more significant and life-changing for everyone on the planet.”

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Alan at home in front of his laptop, 2017

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