London’s Silicon Valley? Romford was the real home of computers in Britain
Last week the Prime Minister unveiled ambitious plans to transform east London into one of the “world’s greatest technology centres.”
With internet giants Google and Facebook investing in the area – from Old Street to the Olympic Park – David Cameron hailed the scheme as Britain’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley.
But head further east and you’ll discover it was Havering which 45 years ago launched one of the most momentous computer schemes in the nation’s history.
In July 1966 The Royal Liberty School, in Gidea Park, laid claim to the first ever computer in a British school and possibly all of Europe.
The size of a large desk and costing a whopping �17,000, the Elliott 903 was the same model used by NASA.
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Maths teacher Bill Broderick was the driving force behind the project, first floating the idea when he joined the school in 1962, at just 21-years-old.
With Bill’s determination, the school secured �400 from the community, �5,000 from the council and �11,600 from businesses.
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A Royal Liberty campaign flyer at the time said: “It is important that in this age of automation everyone should be aware of the impact of computers on society. In the years to come, by 1970 in fact, it is estimated that 100,000 people will use computers.”
Bill, now 71 and living in Suffolk, said: “I had a room altered to accommodate it and we had people queuing out the door.
“The pupils were young, bright and eager to have a go.”
Bill also designed the country’s first A-level computer-science syllabus and saw many of his students take their skills into high-powered IT jobs across the world.
Ex-pupil Colin Sibthorp was 13 when first used the Elliott 903 and remembers writing music and game programmes. Today the 59-year-old lives in Canada, working as a senior business consultant for software company Temenos.
He said: “I remember writing a computerised version of the game NIM - pick-up sticks - and a reaction timing program which were used at the summer fair, around 1969. Unfortunately my father won the reaction timing game and everyone thought it was fixed - it wasn’t, he just had excellent reactions.”
His fellow pupil Vince Leatt, now 57, is a director of computer manufacturing firm Coborne, based in Romford.
He said: “For a 13-year-old, if you can make the lights flash on and off and make it play tunes, well, it must be the same sort of buzz hackers get. You’re working out how it works, you’re getting into the guts of it.
“It got me off the games field. We would sneak off and spend two or three hours there a night until we got kicked out.”
In 1970 the computer was moved to the former Quarles Secondary School site in Harold Hill and used as resource in the community.