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Tales In Tech History: ICL, The British Computing Giant

When we think of multinational IT organisations, we think of Silicon Valley, Seattle or Japan. We rarely think of, well, Putney.

But that’s exactly from where ICL (International Computers Ltd) launched its assault on the IT industry.

The British computing giant was formed from several firms offering a range of hardware, software and services in 1968, and expanded to markets such as Germany, South Africa, Australia and Germany, and built up a sizeable businesses in the process.

But like many of its British contemporaries, ICL did not survive the rapidly changing IT landscape. And now only elements of it survive under the banner of Japanese computing giant Fujitsu.

British Champion

Back in the days before the IBM-compatible PC arrived and began to be used in vast numbers, computers were centralised machines, typically sourced from a select number of manufacturers such as IBM, NCR, Siemens, Honeywell, Olivetti, Sperry Univac etc.

These ‘big iron’ machines were often mainframes, but also included a range of minicomputers as well.

ICL itself was formed back in 1968 after a series of mergers in the British IT industry of the late 1950s and 1960s and as part of the Industrial Expansion Act of the Wilson Labour Government.

This act was the brainchild of Tony Benn, the then Minister of Technology, who wanted a British computer giant that could rival foreign manufacturers such as IBM.

ICL was created primarily from the merger of International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and English Electric Computers, the latter of which had been formed by the union of Elliott Automation and English Electric Leo Marconi (EELM) computers.

This meant ICL inherited several different computers, the most notable of which  was the ICT 1900 Series of mainframes, while English Electric Computers (EEC) gave ICL the System 4, a range of IBM-compatible mainframe clones.

Golden Era: 1970s

The company’s most successful product line was the ICL 2900 Series range of mainframe computers (launched in 1974), running the Virtual Machine Environment (VME) operating system.

ICL did attempt to diversify its product portfolio, including marketing another range of IBM clones made by Fujitsu, as well as selling various mini-computer and personal computers. Despite this, mainframes remained ICL’s core money maker, but mainframe buyers tended to be few and far between due to the expensive nature of these machines.

To this end, ICL tended to rely on large contracts from the UK public sector, and notably customers such as the Post Office, Inland Revenue, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Ministry of Defence.

Turbulent 1980s

And for a while this strategy worked, but heading into the 1980s things began to change. The IBM-compatible personal computer had arrived, which highlighted the need for computing firms to make lower cost computers.

ICL’s 2900 range was also facing stiff competition from the likes of IBM with its IBM 4300 series. Consequently ICL ran into a financial crisis in 1981, which resulted in a takeover bid from Univac.

The British Government stepped in however and saved ICL from bankruptcy with a loan guarantee, enabling it to stay independent.

Robb Wilmot was brought in as chief executive and he made some important changes, including signing an agreement to gain access to Fujitsu’s LSI and packaging technologies.

As this was then combined with ICL’s in-house CAD capability, it enabled ICL to design and manufacture the Series 39 level 30 and 80 computers. ICL began selling personal computers as well in 1984.

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An ICL video advert from the 1980s can be found here and the core principles touted in the advert are still relevant today.

In 1984 things changed for ICL again when it was taken over by Standard Telephones and Cables (STC). The thinking behind this move was the expected convergence of computers and telecommunications.

At its peak in the 1980s, ICL had 24,000 staff and although Wilmot remained in charge of the company, Peter Bonfield arrived as marketing director.

Unfortunately for ICL, the merger was soon followed by a financial crisis at STC. This resulted in Bonfield being appointed as chairman and managing director of ICL, and within a few years ICL was contributing 60 percent of the profits and revenue of the combined group.

The End

But in the second half of the 1980s, Fujitsu’s involvement with ICL steadily increased, and in 1990 its intentions became clearer when it purchased 80 percent of ICL plc from STC for $1.29bn (£1bn).

The following year ICL purchased Nokia Data, and ICL then began to sell and market its personal computers and servers under its own brand. But Fujitsu’s stake 80 percent stake in ICL meant the Japanese firm was in the driving seat for the British computing giant, and in 1998 Fujitsu became ICL’s sole shareholder.

Then in 1999 a joint venture between Fujitsu and Siemens absorbed all of ICL’s hardware business, with the exception of VME mainframes. In April 2002 ICL was rebranded as Fujitsu Services, and Fujitsu itself continues to service large contracts with big name British customers, including various governmental departments.

The demise of ICL is still relevant today – A British champion of technology that was taken over by a larger, foreign firm.  With ARM having been taken over by Softbank, the wait goes on for the next big UK tech firm.

As for the Putney, the old ICL building has been converted into luxury flats and a Wetherspoons (see above image).

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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