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 Ivor Catt: Dinosaur Computers
first published in ELECTRONICS WORLD June 2003

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"Property 1 a", the WSI approach, had massive advantages over the approach we were using with conventional chips, interconnected on boards, interconnected on the back plane in a box measuring two feet by one foot by one foot. "Property 1a" would be self repairing and so more reliable. It would be smaller, lighter, consume less power and therefore less fuel. Using this approach to WSI in the FFT would pave the way to our capturing the world airborne digital signal processing market, both military and commercial.

I asked Ian Deegan what was the best way to try to infiltrate it into a conservative company like GEC. He said I should get the advice of the `Man in the Green Coat', a
Welshman. The Man in the Green Coat told me that it would be very difficult to innovate in GEC, and the best chance was to propose it to Whitehead, the GEC Chief Scientist, so I sent the proposal to him. I sent further copies for a period of six months.

Finally I received Whitehead's reply, which was that GEC did not see an immediate application for my proposals and if they were to move in that direction, GEC would expect to buy in from the USA.

An Indian engineer at GEC told me a funny story about Whitehead. GEC was concerned that graduate engineers who joined GEC tended not to stay very long. To improve their morale, young engineers on the staff were invited to a wine and nibbles party. Chief Engineer Mariner walked among the assembled engineers. The Indian asked Mariner; "What has our Chief Scientist Whitehead done?" Mariner replied that Whitehead was the grandson of the great Alfred North Whitehead.

The Indian then said; "But what has he done?" Mariner said; "He and I worked our way up through the company together from the bench." Again, the Indian said; "But what has he done?" Mariner answered; "I'm not going to answer any more of these f***ing questions," and stormed out of the party.

I heard that a man in the MoD was keen on my ideas. I phoned him and asked what the procedure was to propose a technical innovation in a MoD funded weapon being designed and built with MoD funding in GEC. He replied that I needed to convince the staff at RSRE Malvern. He set me up to lecture to the 150 technical staff at Malvern, and their response to my lecture was very positive. I then waited two years and asked what the next step was. Only then did I find out that there was no next step. There is no procedure for suggesting that a British technical innovation being developed with British Government funding be introduced into a British weapon system being developed with British Government funding.

A few years later, the Nimrod project was abandoned after £1 billion of taxpayer's money had been spent and the British forces bought the US alternative, called AWACS - the darning sock on top of a Boeing.

Some years later, I approached GEC again with my WSI proposals. This time, the Chief Engineer Ash and the head of software `Elbow' invited me to a meeting and expressed interest, saying they would send one of their engineers to discuss the matter further with me. Sure enough, a bright young engineer appeared later in my garden in Redbourn. I asked him how it was that GEC were pursuing the matter. He replied that he was very bright and had done very good work on detachment in Gloucestershire, gaining a high technical reputation. On return, he now represented a threat to the management. They had sent him to meet me in the hope that the two threats, he and I, would cancel each other out. Since there was no point in his losing his job, I said the obvious way out was for him to give a negative report on the proposal. I heard nothing more from GEC. 


1 Dinosaur among the Data? New Scientist, 6 March 1969, pp501/502 -
2 Wireless World July 1981, p254.
3 The Kernel Logic Machine, Electronics & Wireless World, March 1989, p254
4 Wireless World July 1981.
5 References on Air Traffic Control see
6 Nigel Cook's article on the Kernal Machine for Air Traffic Control
7 See AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: How many more air disasters?
8 Martin J Wiener: "English culture and the decline of the industrial spirit", pub. CUP 1982,
9 Computer Worship, Ivor Catt, pub. Pitman 1973
10 The Spectator, 9th February 1974, p179

Artificial Intelligence

Prof. Donald Mitchie at Edinburgh promised the moon with the conventional single processor computer. Thus, he blocked advances in computer architecture. I corresponded with him, and nobody, including the government. suckers funding what he called 'Artificial Intelligence' (Al), which turned out to be telling the difference between a cup and a saucer (I promise, on my word of honour!) cared a bit when he failed to deliver two years later what he had promised - getting a computer to detect the difference between a cup and a saucer. They continued to admire his dynamic forward looking work. For me, the primary effect was that advance beyond von Neumann was blocked by programmers like Mitchie calling themselves 'Artificial Intelligence', and saying that the processor would keep getting faster, so one processor would always be enough. In the journal Computer Weekly I have published that Al blocked advances in computer architecture.

Years later, a government report said Al was a waste of time and the funding was totally stopped. Around that time, a Walla called Prof. Aleksadner of Brunel, later Imperial, tried to climb aboard my 'Catt Spiral' juggernaut, because that was where the funding had migrated to. Later, his idea, praised in the media, was for a computer to tell whether someone was smiling or not. He called it Al. Like Mitchie, he gained a lot of media acclaim. So Al died.

Years later, a bunch of kids gave the term to another activity entirely, a more reasonable activity, which was more like computers aiding the human, rather than replacing him. (One is religion, the other is technology.) They gained funding.

Around this time, a man with a quasi-religious attitude to hi-tec turned up named Sinclair, and grabbed the Catt Spiral, ostensibly to make money and suchlike, but his hidden agenda (like the one Nigel Cook is drifting towards now) was to make a computer in the image of Man, the old Tower of Babel fixation. While I welcomed Sinclair's support, I worried that he might come upon my more forceful stuff against Al, perhaps in my books 'Computer Worship'. At any moment during our very successful partnership, which lasted for many years and brought innovative product to market with acclaim, he could have dismissed me as a heretic. After all, religion is more important than business, as I found much earlier in 1965 when another Al freak, Dr. Narud, head of R&D in Motorola Phoenix, tried to fire me for heresy. He loved the 'hot box', which was a box stuffed with chips and shaped like the human brain. You can see it in the last chapter of the Motorola bible on IC design. Narud insisted that the last chapter discuss neurons and include pictures of neurons. The Motorola bible was later replaced by the Carver Mead Caltech bible, which contains a chapter on 'The Glitch' at the insistence of Chuck Seitz. The Glitch had little relevance to IC design either.

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