The Book - BCL Molecular 18

BCL Molecular 18
Title
Go to content
Adapt and Survive
A lesson from history on positioning in the computing industry

Kevin Murrell
The National Museum of Computing

Published in Great Britain in 2016 by The National Museum of Computing Block H Bletchley Park Milton Keynes MK3 6EB UK
info@tnmoc.org www.tnmoc.org
© 2016 The National Museum of Computing

The National Museum of Computing is the operating name of CodesandCiphers Heritage Trust, a UK registered charity No 1109874. All rights reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private research, study, criticism or review, as permitted, under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, chemical, mechanical, optical, photo-copying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. Enquiries should be directed to the publisher. Every attempt has been made by the publishers to secure the appropriate permissions for the materials reproduced in this book. If there has been any oversight, we will be happy to rectify the situation and a written submission should be made to the publisher. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.


ISBN: 978-0-9567956-4-9

Kevin Murrell has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this book.
Production co-ordinated by Stephen Fleming of Palam Communciations
The Book Text

 
 
Introduction
 
Throughout this document, I refer to a British company called BCL and the range of computing devices they designed, manufactured and sold from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s.  In fact, there was no single company called BCL, but rather a series of companies that each took up the baton in maintaining a range of computers and looking after their users.  So when I refer to BCL as a shortcut, the precise business I am referring to depends upon where we are in this history.
 
The heyday of BCL runs from 1961 until 1974 in the form of Business Computers Ltd., and then from 1976 until the mid-1990s as Business Computer (Systems) Plc.
 
While the popular name for the business remained BCL throughout its life, each successive business had quite different goals and different philosophies.  After marketing a series of electronic machines dedicated to limited accounting functions, BCL produced a general-purpose mini-computer in 1971 and initially regarded itself as a part of a group of worldwide manufacturers of computers for industry and commerce.  That business model changed quickly when the company realised that they were not able to keep up with other manufacturers, especially those in the US, and the company concentrated instead on supplying business solutions with bundled application software (so-called “turnkey systems”).
 
From 1976 on, BCL was quite a different company: it was sales led and simply used the mini-computer they had inherited as a vehicle for their sophisticated applications which they sold into a niche marketplace.  
 
Apart from the physical appearance of the machine, the Molecular 18 did not change fundamentally from when it was designed in 1971 until it stopped being used by customers in the late 1990s.
 
 
 
 
 
Early Years
 
 

BCL’s origins can be traced back to three earlier companies: Unex Ltd. (established in the late 1930s), Lows Calculators (1939) and Systemation Ltd. (1961).
 
Jewish refugees from continental Europe founded Unex in the late 1930s. They established a business selling and maintaining accounting machines - mainly those manufactured by Burroughs. After the war ended, they also had a reseller agreement with the German company Continental Wanderer, who manufactured electro-mechanical accounting machines. One of their biggest customers was Barclays Bank who used the ‘Continental Class 900’ machine extensively.
 
 
On 11th Dec 1939, Unex was bought by Mr Thomas Low and re-incorporated as Low’s Calculators Ltd., which went on to operate out of Unex’s premises at 15 Holborn Viaduct, London EC2. In 1962, Lows Calculators changed its name to Business Mechanisation Ltd. and moved to 180 Tottenham Court Road, London, although the name above the new shop stayed as Lows for quite some time.
 

At the Business Efficiency Exhibition (BEE) in Olympia, London, 1963, Business Mechanisation exhibited an electro-mechanical invoicing machine built from an Adler electric typewriter and a Walther decimal printing calculator. Attending the exhibition, Bill Gannon and Gordon Clark from Systemation Ltd. took the opportunity to describe to Business Mechanisation a purely electronic system they had designed that would perform a similar job more reliably and certainly faster.
 
It was agreed that Systemation’s new machine would be demonstrated to Bill Hesleton and Steve Brady from Business Mechanisation as soon as it was complete. This occurred several months later and Business Mechanisation cancelled development of their own product that they realised was already out of date.  Business Mechanisation agreed to take over the marketing of the new electronic machine and immediately ordered twenty systems.
 
Systemation was formed in Hove, Sussex in 1961 by a group of six engineers who had worked previously in the aircraft industry. They quickly produced an electronic calculator called BETSIE that operated in Pounds Sterling and was designed to calculate betting shop winnings. BETSIE sold well throughout the UK, and this encouraged the team to build increasingly sophisticated machines for new markets.
 
Business Mechanisation Ltd became the sole agents for all of Systemation’s products in 1965 and sold over 85 systems in the first year.
 
 

 
 
BCL from 1968 to 1974
 
 

Business Mechanisation Ltd changed its name to BisMec Group Ltd. in 1968, and a year later acquired all of Systemation’s assets and formed the new company Business Computers Ltd - or BCL as they were then always known.  
 
Each of the two original companies had specific strengths and very little overlap in abilities.  To benefit from this, all sales and marketing was conducted from Tottenham Court Road and was led by Bill Heselton and the BisMec team while Bill Gannon and the Systemation team managed all the technical development and programming from Portslade.  While this sounds like two companies working quite separately, there was a constant dialog between the two offices.
 

SADIE (Sterling and Decimal Invoicing Electronically)
 
The new electronic machine built by Systemation was subsequently named SADIE, an acronym for ‘Sterling and Decimal Invoicing Electronically’.  It was a programmable computer with a limited instruction set, with programs hard-wired into the machine.  Aside from a wire delay line, there was no memory in the machine.
 

SADIE was designed to automate the production of sales invoices.  For the operator it appeared to act as a combination of a typewriter and a calculator, but looked like a normal office typewriter.  The operator would manually type the invoice header with details of the customer, delivery address, invoice number and date as normal.  Each line of the invoice body would then be typed by the operator moving from field to field across the page using the tab key.  The operator would enter the line number, the product description, the unit sales price and any applicable discount.  When tabbing to the last field in the line, the device would calculate the total line value, taking into account the number sold, the unit price and the discount level.  At the end of the invoice, the operator would instruct the device, using a push button, to print the total invoice value.
 
Previously many of the small business users of SADIE would have completed these operations in individual stages, often being carried out by different people.  The invoice would be part-typed, then passed to a clerk who would calculate the line value, then the figures would go back to the typist to complete the invoice.  
 
Importantly, SADIE could be switched between Sterling and Decimal – a point made strongly in the advertising for the product as the machine was launched just prior to the UK switch to decimal currency.
 

SADIE was a relatively inexpensive machine that changed what was a complex and error-prone task into one that could be completed by a typist who did not possess particular accounting skills.  It provided an instant return on investment for its users and was very popular.
 
 

SUSIE (Stock Updating and Sales Invoicing Electronically)
 
SADIE was subsequently developed into a more general-purpose system known as SUSIE.  At first glance, the new system looked very similar to SADIE, but the major difference between the two machines was that SUSIE was a stored-program computer with the program held on an internal magnetic drum store rather than hard-wired into the machine.  Much of the CPU logic of SADIE was reused in SUSIE
 
Standard programs could now be developed by BCL that required only minor modification for different customers, and minor changes to the applications could be made in the field.  
 
    Alongside the main typewriter desk was a unit with a paper-tape punch and reader and an edge-punched card reader.  SUSIE would be used for similar tasks to those performed using SADIE, but SUSIE was capable of running four different programs with the operator selecting one using a set of push buttons next to the keyboard.  The edge-punched card reader allowed the customer details such as account number and invoice and delivery addresses to be read from a customer-specific punched card rather than being typed in manually.  The application could also punch the invoice details to paper tape as they were being entered by the operator and the tapes produced at the end of the month sent to a bureau for customer statement production and further analysis.
 
As well as storing the application programs, there was sufficient space on the magnetic drum to maintain a product stock file.  BCL promotional material at the time suggests a limit of five hundred different product lines including part number, unit price and current stock level.
 
SUSIE was given paper-tape and edge-punched card stations not solely to satisfy a particular customer requirement, but also to ensure that SUSIE fell within the Ministry of Technology’s standard definition of a computer and thus to enable purchasers to claim 20% tax relief on their investment.
 

Spectacular Growth
 
By 1967, the group had opened 13 sales offices throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland and had sold over 700 systems.  Two years later six more sales offices had been added. SADIE and SUSIE systems typically sold for between £2,750 and £6,750 and SUSIE systems between £7,000 and £30,000.
 
Later in 1969, Bill Gannon described the early says of BCL saying ‘There was virtually no competition for this type of machine when we started serious production.  By the time it arrived in the field we were off to a flying start with 60-70 machines already out.
 
BCL offered shares to the public in 1969 by issuing 700,000 ordinary 2/- shares at 21/- each which represented some 40% of the equity. The Times reported that this represented a price-to-earnings ratio of 15.9, dividends were expected at 40%, and that it expected an enthusiastic response. The share issue was over-subscribed by 40% - a record at the time.
 
    Multi-SUSIE was launched in 1969 at the Business Efficiency Exhibition that year.  Individual SUSIE workstations could now be connected to a central machine with a larger drum store that acted as the common program and data store for each SUSIE user. Extra instructions were added to the SUSIE order code to manage access to this shared resource. The larger drum also allowed eight application programs to be stored which were all available to each user.  The new multi-user system proved to be very successful commercially with over 300 systems sold by 1972.
 

The Molecular 18
 
In October 1971, again at the Business Efficiency Exhibition, BCL launched its latest machine, a general-purpose mini-computer known as the Molecular 18. This was described ‘as the most interesting exhibit … the new Molecular 18 system attracted a lot of attention’.  The machine shown at the exhibition was destined for Unigate – one of BCL’s first customers for the machine. BCL reported sales of over sixty Molecular systems within six months of the launch at BEE.
 

The Molecular 18 was a 17-bit word-addressed general-purpose mini-computer that was an original design by BCL.  It supported up to 32k words of core memory, a single disk drive and up to 8 terminal devices.  The machine had a comprehensive instruction code, interrupt handling, communications through dedicated I/O channels and an automatic power-fail restart ability.  The design had no inherent hardware support for multi-tasking or multi-user support – all of which was managed in software.
 
The order code, functions and hardware features are very similar to the HP2100 series of machines which were quoted by many original BCL personnel as the primary source of ideas when designing the functionality of the Molecular 18.
 
BCL sold the Molecular with just the basic operating software. Customers were expected to develop their own systems and, for their initial customers, this was perfectly acceptable.  BCL produced a very basic assembler but no high level programming languages that would make producing applications easier.  Other mini-computer manufacturers in the UK and elsewhere produced machines similar to the Molecular but devoted resources in producing system software such as assemblers, high-level languages and report generators.  Many of these other companies also produced a range of software-compatible machines allowing existing customers to upgrade as their use of the system grew.
 
    A typical BCL customer at the time was Legal and General Insurance who chose the Molecular 18 after looking carefully at other UK and international suppliers.  They had an established IT department, employed programmers and managed all their own system development.
 
BCL did produce an upgraded Molecular in 1973 known as the Mk 2.  This was a new CPU design that included a hardware stack and base and limit registers. It was not compatible with existing software, and BCL quickly abandoned development of the model, disabled some of the new features and ensured it was compatible with the Mk 1.
 
The new machine was also marketed as the Molecular 6M and was sold as a single user system that included basic application software.  The 6M with one terminal, one printer and a disk drive with exchangeable disk packs was advertised for £12,500.  The sales literature mentions it could be upgraded to a Molecular 18 and extra terminals added, but it was in fact the same machine albeit with one terminal and a very limited amount of memory.
 
BCL reported a loss of £232,000 for the first half of 1971., Orders for the Molecular 18 continued to grow, however, and BCL’s management were optimistic that the business would soon be profitable once again.  Mr Lewis Harris, Managing Director of BCL, told Computer Weekly that ‘orders for Molecular 18 were exceptionally good and far greater than at earlier launches of SADIE, SUSIE and Multi-SUSIE’.
 
By late 1972, BCL realised that it was not going to be able to keep up with rival mini-computer manufacturers, as they could not afford the resources to develop the advanced systems software or the range of machines that was expected.  Instead, they decided to operate as they had when selling SADIE and SUSIE systems and develop application software, using their basic software tools, specifically for UK businesses that were not interested in running their own development programme, but rather wanted to buy a ready-built business solution instead.  BCL changed its marketing of the Molecular 18 to promote complete business solutions with application software included, albeit without appreciating the amount of effort that would subsequently be required.
 

Increasing losses and cash-flow problems
 
BCL grew very rapidly with sales offices opening around the UK and abroad and employing over 590 people at its peak.  However, the management of BCL had hugely under-estimated the complexity of producing complete systems including application software, and their experience with SADIE and SUSIE did not scale well up to the multi-user application systems expected by customers of the Molecular 18.
 
The rapid growth inevitably caused severe cash-flow problems and increasing losses and by January 1974, BCL’s share price dropped by almost 80% to just 17p per share.
 
Limited financial help came in January 1974 from the German Company Kämmerei Döhren KG of Hanover when they bought three million new shares in BCL for £600,000, a transaction that bought them 40% of the total equity of the company. The German company also had the option to buy further shares to increase their holding to 49%.  Kämmerei Döhren (KD) was not itself involved in computer manufacture, but was the major shareholder in a computer manufacturer called Wagner Computer Vertrieb GmbH that produced a small system described as complementary to BCL’s Molecular.  Lewis Harris, then MD of BCL expected there to be a common product within two years.  Four months later, BCL reported that it had negotiated a further £200,000 loan with KD.
 
BCL’s chairman, Ronald Aitken, reported to Computer Weekly that there had been discussions between BCL and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) but that BCL had made not made a formal approach to government to secure funding.  BCL had made overtures to government before; in March 1972, it held a reception close to the House of Commons to demonstrate the Molecular 18 to members of parliament.  It also gave the opportunity for BCL’s managing director, Lewis Harris, to remind those MPs attending that there ‘were other computer manufacturers in the UK besides ICL’.  Harris also made the point that BCL was not looking for funding, but did think it ‘strange that BCL had never been invited to tender for government orders’.
 
In an answer to a House of Commons question in June 1974 from Mr Eric Moon MP, Mr Anthony Wedgewood-Benn MP, Industry Secretary, replied that BCL did approach the DTI seeking financial support before the sale of shares to Kämmerei Döhren.
 
 
 
 
BCL from 1974 to 1976
 
 

Bankruptcy
 
From the outset, Clydesdale Bank were proving funds in the form of loans and the overdraft facility required for the continued operation of BCL. As of June 1974, the bank held over £100M in secured loans to BCL and after a meeting in June 1974 that failed to negotiate further funding, Clydesdale Bank called in their loans and forced BCL into receivership.  Trading in BCL’s shares was suspended immediately and a receiver was appointed by the bank.   
 
At the time, Ronald Aitken, then chairman of BCL said ‘The immediate cause of the failure of the company was that we announced a further £200,000 loan from Kämmerei Döhren last month on the basis of telex messages and the money never came through.’.  
 
Dataweek reported in June 1974 that Kämmerei Döhren (KD) itself was under pressure in Germany and was currently being investigated by the Berlin Public Prosecutor in relation to allegations of fraud and mismanagement.  This investigation was sparked off by a group of KD’s shareholders led by the ex-managing director of Wagner Computer, and led to suspension of KD share trading by the Hannover Stock exchange.
 

BCL went into receivership on 26th June 1974.  Mr Ian Watt of Thomas McLintock, who was appointed as official receiver, told Computer Weekly ‘I am anxious to get it over to users not to rush off and make their own arrangements for systems support and maintenance’. The company had some 400 to 500 employees and they agreed to carry on for at least two weeks, which is all the time Mr Watt felt he had to rescue the company.
 
Just prior to this point, BCL’s management was expecting to complete a deal with another German company, Preuβler AG of Berlin, which was prepared to buy the rights to all the BCL expertise. This was expected to bring £8m into the business but Aitken told Computer Weekly that the deal was now unlikely to go through.
 

In an almost comically tragic statement in June 1974, Aitken told Computer Weekly: ‘The extent of Business Computer’s problems first became clear at the end of last year when I discovered that programming would cost a bomb more than we had budgeted for.  We tried desperately to get things right and hired an army of programmers – at one time we were up to 750-800 people altogether and very vastly over-staffed with programmers.
 
Alternative sources of software support for BCL customers were already available, as companies such as Allied Computing and Software had been proving services to BCL users for some time and had decided to provide a wider and more comprehensive services to Molecular users.
 
In July 1974, Computer Agencies Ltd, part of Computer World Trade (CWT), itself owned by British Airways, bought what remained of BCL from the receivers, and named the new company Business Computers (1974) Ltd.  CWT intended to continue with the manufacture and marketing of the Molecular, and Triad Computing System would be asked to look after all software development under a facilities management agreement with CWT.  CWT told Computer Weekly that it would attempt to conclude the deal with Preuβler AG that had been put hold. However, this was not achieved.
 
A division of Computer World Trade, Computer Field Maintenance, had contracts with many SUSIE and Molecular users providing hardware support and purchased the business primarily to protect their hardware maintenance business.
 
BCL had two primary classes of customer at this point: those who bought the hardware with a view to developing their own systems in-house, and those that had bought a turnkey solution to help manage their businesses.   
 
Customers such as Legal and General who had invested £150,000 in Molecular hardware were particular aggrieved.  Mr Harry Philips of Legal & General expressed disappointment that BCL ‘had moved away from its proper business’, and it was ‘particularly galling to see BCL in trouble through supplying under-priced software to other users’.
 
Customers who had bought turnkey solutions were not able to develop software themselves and were left hoping that the new business created by CWT and its associates would come to their rescue.
 
 
 
BCL from 1976 onwards
 
 

The Singer men take over BCL and inject needed cash
 
Early in 1976, International Computers Ltd (ICL), the UK’s largest computer manufacturer, acquired the non-US business of Singer Business Machines (SBM).  SBM had been successful in selling a small business system known as the Singer System Ten, which it had acquired when purchasing the Friden business in the US in 1965.
 
Shortly after the take-over by ICL, some twenty managers and senior staff who had worked for SBM in the UK left ICL, and a small team of these managers, Mike Munnelly, Eric Gilliland and Martin Alcock, bought a controlling interest in BCL.  Munnelly had previously been marketing director of SBM in the UK, and was made the Managing Director of BCL.  This management team had a lot of experience in selling the Singer System Ten computer in the UK, and saw the Molecular 18 as an alternative system to sell into the small businesses market they knew well.  
 
Munnelly later described himself at the time as a very experienced salesman, but an inexperienced businessman, and looking back describes the takeover of BCL as a mistake.  The company at that time was losing some £40,000 per month.  Munelly also describes the location on the UK south coast as ‘possibly the worst location it could have had being so far from potential new customers’.
 
The new owners acquired all the rights to the Molecular 18 as well as responsibility for the staff, the buildings and the branch offices.  The management team operated initially out of the BCL building in Portslade who were still producing four Molecular systems each month.  They were approached by Allied Business Systems Ltd (ABS), part of the Trafalgar House Group, who were looking for a factory to build their own systems, and a deal was arranged to transfer the factory and production staff from BCL to ABS.  Munnelly describes the relief of not being responsible for the Portslade factory as one of the happiest days of his business life.   The head office of BCL was moved to new premises in Borehamwood, near London.

 
    Developing the Molecular 18
 
As part of the deal with BCL, ABS produced a new, better-engineered model based on the Mk 3 machine and used the original Mk 3 CPU design and hence had identical functionality and programming.  The new model was inevitably christened the Mk 4 and was launched in October 1977.
 
ABS also produced their own similar system known as Multibus, and BCL agreed to market this machine as the Molecular 80.  Only a few systems were sold by BCL, as they concentrated instead on selling the Molecular 18 which offered a higher sales margin.
 
The system and application software that came along with the company was in a very sorry state with few programming standards in place and very little system software (known within BCL as “firmware”) to control the operation of the computer. Each installation was quite different from the next, generally incompatible with all others, and increasingly difficult to maintain.  
 
At that stage, each application written for the Molecular was designed to run in a fixed portion of the machine memory, and if a customer wished to run the same application on more than one terminal, the application would be copied and modified to allow it to run at a new memory address.  Applications could not be copied from one installation to another without substantial modifications to allow for the different machine configurations.
 
The new BCL management recognised that they needed to rationalise this situation by developing a common operating system and designing a set programming standards for new application development.  Joe Templeman joined BCL in 1975, and would soon become software manager at BCL in Leicester, and led the evolution of a standard operating system, LOS or Leicester Operating System.

 
Sidebar: Joe Templemen recalls: “C Victor (in St. Albans) was the first project we did from scratch.  Its foundation was the "BCL Supervisor". As I recall, this was a task scheduler sitting on top of the Mark I "firmware" with a gap in between where you could put the application code. We had to set out separate memory areas for each "task", and write separate versions of code for each task that might run it. We didn’t solve that problem with C Victor, rather it drew attention to the need to find a solution whilst we attended to other rather more pressing matters, such as setting up a file structure instead of working with absolute sector numbers on the discs. Next came the Tate Gallery. Again this was a pre-LOS system but it was probably the first place where we used "offset" addressing to run program code in different partitions without maintaining separate versions. The "offset" solution revealed itself in the Newcastle Arms in Nottingham one evening. It was implemented in software by lunchtime the next day.”
 

LOS allowed application software to be written without regard to the machine configuration, memory size or number and type of peripherals.  Importantly it meant that application packages could be written and marketed to multiple customers rather than bespoke systems written almost from scratch each time a new machine was delivered.
 
One of the earliest sales for the new management was to Philip Harris (Medical) Ltd (PHM) in Birmingham, UK.  PHM was a wholesaler pharmaceutical supplier whose customers were high street chemists and dispensing doctors.  PHM would telephone their customers at least once each day to take orders and deliveries would typically be either later that day or early the next morning.  Speed of operation was paramount as telesales operators dealt with customers. Orders were taken, printed in the warehouse, picked and checked and were ready for the delivery vans – all within 45 minutes. The system at PHM and the application software was very successful and became the reference site for the Molecular for many years.  PHM agreed it would host two visits from prospective BCL customers each month and this facility was well used by the BCL salesforce.

 
Rationalising the application packages
 
Standard packages such as payroll and purchase and nominal ledgers were common to almost all sites, and bespoke modifications to these were rare.  The sales order processing software was the prime reason for a customer buying the system.  The application delivered was typically developed from what had been supplied to a previous customer and grew in terms of functionality for each new installation.   For instance, a system produced initially for Thompson Toys, a fancy goods distributor in the Midlands, was gradually expanded and refined until it was suitable for quite different businesses.  Even if the system was eventually used by a cash and carry warehouse, it was still known by the support team as a ‘Thompson Toys’ system.
 
Multiple threads of development were gradually brought together into two very sophisticated sales order processing systems known as ‘MCMB’ (Multi-Company, Multi-Branch), developed by the Birmingham office, and the ‘London Package’ developed in Borehamwood and later in Milton Keynes.  The development of these new packages was done by two very small programming teams led by Gordon Ledger and Rod Luggar respectively.
 
In contrast to the pre-1974 business, BCL regarded itself solely as a sales driven company selling a packaged solution to a limited range of businesses rather than a general mini-computer development company with an active research and development programme.   To that end, the operating system LOS and its later versions were designed solely to support as many users as possible in the limited memory space available on the Molecular and to be as fast as possible executing application software.  
 
While similar mini-computer manufacturers in the UK and worldwide were developing assemblers, compilers and report generators, these were not a requirement for the type of business BCL had become and certainly not for its customers.  It was also now extremely rare for this new generation of customers to employ programmers to develop their systems in-house.

 
Xerox and Diablo Data Systems
 
In 1977, BCL was approached by Xerox Inc. to become the sole UK distributor for a range of small computers developed by the Xerox division ‘Diablo Data Systems’.  The Diablo 3200, known also as the Ranger, was an 8-bit microprocessor based system with twin 8” floppy disks all built into a medium sized desk.  The range of machines made by Xerox grew and supported multiple terminals and BCL were looking for a system to sell to smaller companies in the UK that typically needed fewer than eight terminals.  Xerox also provided an extensive suite of application programs written in a proprietary language called DACL (Diablo Application Control Language), and a compiler was licenced to BCL by Xerox.  BCL ‘anglicised’ the application packages for their UK customers and branded the suite as ‘Fairway’.  The use of these systems allowed for a solution to be developed that was much more affordable for small companies than the Molecular 18, and proved to be very popular.
 
Munnelly regards this dealership with Xerox as the breakthrough for the new business: “After the years of hell in turning BCL around, the business became fun again and much like the days at SBM”.  BCL took on many new distributors for the Diablo based systems and gave the dealers the application packages free of charge.  The dealers were of course obliged to purchase the hardware from BCL, as BCL was the sole UK distributor.

 
Growth
 
The new business grew rapidly and it went public in May 1981.  This did allow extra funds into the business, but Munnelly regards it as a possible mistake: “We became awfully visible … like living in a goldfish bowl”.
 
In 1982, BCL contracted Systemation Developments Ltd (SDL) to produce a new Molecular 18 model, that would be functionally identical to the Mk 4 but that would support higher capacity disk drives, more users, and more than 64k of memory.   SDL produced the Mk 5 model and later the Distributor model using bit-slice technology, and reduced the 18 printed circuit board CPU to a more manageable and more reliable three-board system.  The new machines were functionally identical to previous models and allowed existing system and application software to be run without the need for any modification.  It was only at this stage that the extra functionality introduced in the Mk 2 was finally removed from the CPU.
 
 
 
Growing Losses and cash-flow problems
 
The Xerox contract was extended in 1980 for another five years, but in 1984, Xerox stopped the development and sale of these machines leaving BCL with no platform into which to sell their Fairway application software. The loss of sales of these relatively high margin systems caused BCL severe cash flow problems and subsequent trading losses.
 
After struggling with growing losses, on March 13 1986, BC(S) Plc became a wholly owned subsidiary of Electronic Data Processing Plc (EDP) of Sheffield, UK.  Established in 1965, and then going public in 1985, EDP was formed to provide online computer services.  In the early 1980s they were the European Distributor for the ADDS (Applied Digital Data Systems) Mentor computer, and the primary supplier of PICK based systems in the Europe.  
 
Primarily in an attempt to retain existing BCL customers, EDP funded development of the Molecular and its operating system and produced (in house) a new model called the EP or Extended Processor.  A new version of the operating system, known as MPOS, was produced which gave the extra functionality that some of the larger Molecular users were hoping for.  In their annual report for 1987, EDP reported that the EP model was being shipped and that the new model now supported up to fifty-six concurrent users.
 
Customers using the Molecular and Diablo systems were gradually moved to modern platforms, and in their annual report for 1987, EDP announced they had completed their DACL to PICK translator and had ported the Fairway applications to new hardware.
 
Support of the Molecular was stopped by EDP in the late-1990s.  Almost all the Molecular application software produced by BCL used just two digits to store the year in date fields, and the challenges of the year 2K problem were foreseen, and the need to move them to new systems was urgent.
 
At the same time, Systemation Developments Ltd (SDL) continued their development of the Molecular and produced a machine known as Amigo that supported more memory and hence more users.  The new single board design, which incorporated an Inmos Transputer as a maths co-processor, was quicker than previous Molecular models and supported higher capacity disk drives.  SDL marketed a new operating system for the Amigo called Swift that supported all the existing BCL application packages.
 
It is difficult to see what SDL were hoping to achieve with the new machine.  None of the application software was year 2K compliant, and the effort required to make all the changes necessary would be enormous.  In particular, the operating system routines for handling dates only managed a two-digit year and while this could be modified, none of the fixed format files had space for extra digits.  As an academic exercise for the engineering-led SDL, it was no doubt satisfying re-designing the Molecular, and undoubtedly they produced a better machine – but to what end?
 
Relations between BCL and SDL were very poor by the mid 1990s as both were producing updated models and SDL was beginning to attract customers who moved away from BCL.  BCL took successful legal action against SDL for its use of part of BCL’s operating system.
 
 
         
Period

 
 
(C) 2022 Kevin Murrell & The National Museum of Computing
Back to content