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David Martin

Notes for Inspec 40th anniversary

I joined the IEE in May 1967, just before my twenty-sixth birthday, as Systems Manager for Inspec. At the time, Inspec consisted, I think, of Ron Smith, its first Director; Tom Aitchison and Peter Clague from the NERC SDI project, and myself, plus one or two support staff.

Harry East and Alan Weyman of ASLIB had conducted a feasibility study for the automation of Science Abstracts, on the strength of which the government’s Office for Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) had awarded a grant to the IEE to finance this development. My job, I was told on my first day, was to make it happen, by January 1969.

For the previous three years or so, I had been leading a small software team at ICL, developing systems for the printing industry, and specifically a generalised computer typesetting package, which had been used by the first UK newspaper group to adopt the new technology. The manner of my recruitment was unconventional, though not unusual for ICL in those days.

The IEE had recently installed an ICL 1901 at Savoy Place; or more accurately, feeling unable to justify the expense of a whole computer on the basis of its financial systems and Inspec alone, it had formed a joint company, Faraday Computers Ltd, with a local accountancy firm, and Faraday Computers had installed a 1901, the smallest machine in ICL’s range.

In those early days of computing, it was accepted by ICL that one of their functions was to act as a training ground for the staff who would then go on to run their customers’ systems. And one of the functions of ICL account managers was to act as poachers on their customers’ behalf. 

So it was the account manager responsible for the IEE, knowing that computer typesetting would be important for Inspec, who approached me discreetly in the corridor of the office in which we were both based, and asked me if I would be interested in talking to the IEE. I was, and that was how it all started.

Computer from 1969

By 1967, the IEE were very conscious that by historical accident they were the owners of the only international English-language abstracting service in a fundamental scientific discipline still based in the UK. Chemical Abstracts was in Columbus, Ohio; Biological Abstracts in Philadelphia; Index Medicus at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland; and so on. But Physics Abstracts was in London, and was still recognised as the primary service in its field, although it operated on a much more modest scale.

Automation had begun rather patchily in some of the US operations. Index Medicus were among the first, having installed a high-speed computer-controlled phototypesetter, the Lumizip 900, in 1964. Chemical Abstracts had automated at least one of their printed indexes, but not the abstracts journals themselves. But through US government grants and contracts, from agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation, a great deal of money was being invested in projects intended to extend the capabilities of automated systems to handle scientific and technical literature and information. Physics Abstracts could not afford to be left behind.

And Physics Abstracts was not left behind. Remarkably, as it seems now, the IEE and Inspec took a very deep breath and decided to automate the entire production operation, abstracts journals, current-awareness journals, indexes and all, in one two-year project. In doing so, we set out to leap-frog all the rest. Small wonder that Tom and Peter greeted my arrival not only with great friendliness (which continued throughout my time at Inspec), but also with some scepticism.

The first thing I had to do was to recruit a small development team. The most able of my computer typesetting colleagues at ICL, Phil Simmons, followed me to the IEE; and another early member of the team was Mike Vernon, who came from Elliott Automation, and proved a great asset. I later worked with him again in two other places. In all, the record shows that the full team put in about four man-years of programming between May 1967 and January 1969.

The next thing was to establish the basic architecture of the system. It would look primitive today, but we seem to have got it right to the extent that we approached it on a modular and flexible basis. We designed and built a generalised file-handling system. Separate production modules were written for each of the publications, all, however, using generalised typesetting software with elements from the existing ICL package. Other production modules were or would later be written to support other services, for example for the delivery of machine-readable data in a suitable communications format, or for SDI.

It would be wrong to suppose that the concept of the central database was our own. I’m sure it was fundamental to the vision of the future which lay behind much of the work going on in other places, and it was at least implicit in the IEE’s decision to create Inspec.

But we can claim that we succeeded in producing systems that put it into practice; and that as a result Inspec was almost certainly the first service of its kind to produce all its products from a single database, and the first to make all of its data content available in machine-readable form to customers who could use it.

From a strictly practical viewpoint, it was essential to maintain continuity in the production of the printed Science Abstracts publications, which were of course the only source of revenue. The IEE’s printers, Unwin Brothers, played an important part. Their Technical Director proved a good friend and adviser (although for one day in the year, when the annual price review took place, he turned into the bad cop in a traditional “good cop, bad cop” routine with his Managing Director).

Unwins’ works, in a surprisingly picturesque mill in Old Woking, were where the magnetic tape filmsetter, a Lumitype 713 was installed; and where a keyboarding team was set up, creating input on paper tape to be sent to the ICL 1901 in London.

A great deal of midnight oil was burnt at Savoy Place during 1968, not least because it was often necessary to wait for the evening shift on the 1901 to get decent testing time (not much multi-tasking in those days). 

But in January 1969 the first computer-produced issues of Science Abstracts appeared, almost on time, with almost the expected number of abstracts, and with the layout and typesetting almost right. At this point it must be confessed that the second issues were not quite as successful as the first, and it took a few months before the bugs were ironed out of the production system; but in due course everything settled down.

By then, though, it was time to produce the first six-monthly indexes. The author indexes posed one of the more interesting problems. Before automation, these had been the responsibility of a long-serving member of Science Abstracts staff (fortunately, perhaps, now reaching retirement), whose expert knowledge was devoted to ensuring that every kind of non-European name was indexed in the place which was right for the language and culture – and nowhere else.

How could a dumb computer be programmed with that sort of skill? The solution came when somebody pointed out that, while a professional indexer might know where to file a Vietnamese name (say), there was absolutely no reason why a professional physicist or electronics engineer should be expected to know where to look for it. So we would index such names under every possible entry point – easy work for a computer.

Already during 1969 we were getting interest in the “raw” data files. We had designed a distribution format for magnetic tapes, based on the ISO 2709 carrier format which was part of the MARC standard, originating from the Library of Congress.

One of my tasks was to work with a firm of intellectual property lawyers – for whom I am sure computer databases were as much a novelty as the law was for me – to draft a licence agreement. I no longer remember who were the first people who signed it; but I do remember that there were early subscriptions from the large Japanese electronics firms, and from a number of academic or national centres which were operating SDI services to their particular communities.

A particularly satisfying moment came in the early summer of 1969. Ron Smith and I had gone to a conference of abstracting and indexing services in Columbus, Ohio. We had done a double act, describing what Inspec had achieved since 1967, and what it had cost. As we finished our presentation, Dale Baker, the then Executive Director of Chemical Abstracts, stood up, looked at us, and said with great deliberation, “I – do – not – believe you”.

At the end of the 1960s, at the time of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology”, Tony Benn, as the Minister responsible, signed an Anglo-Soviet Technological Exchange agreement. Somewhere buried in it was the formation of a joint working group on the exchange of physics information. Inspec was asked to provide the UK side. 

The first meeting was in Moscow in 1970, by which time Derek Barlow had succeeded Ron Smith as Director of Inspec. We spent a fascinating if rather fruitless week in Moscow as the guests of VINITI, the publishers of Referativnyi Zhurnal, agreed some suitably vague actions, and looked forward to a second meeting in London. But in 1971 a new UK government famously expelled 105 Soviet diplomats; and within a couple of days the meeting, the working group and, I guess, the whole agreement had been called off.

1971 was also the year of the IEE’s centenary. The centrepiece of the celebrations was a “Conversazione”, held at the Royal Festival Hall – a combination of a social event for members and guests, and an informal display of science and technology exhibits from companies and universities. Inspec was beginning to look at how the database might be searched online. We were working with, among others, a researcher at Queen’s University, Belfast, who had set up a sample quantity of Inspec data in a rudimentary online search system.

Our exhibit at the Conversazione was a teletypewriter linked by telephone to Belfast. through which a rather limited range of enquiries could be made. As visiting dignitaries toured the exhibition area, the Duke of Edinburgh approached the Inspec stand, steered across by Lord Mountbatten – who as head of the National Electronics Research Council had taken a proprietary interest in the SDI project which Inspec inherited from NERC.

My personal role began to change around this time. I became more involved with the exploitation of the database in machine-readable form, and somewhat less with the systems used for its creation or for the production of the printed publications. The credit for Inspec’s success through the seventies rests with Tom Aitchison and Peter Clague and their colleagues, who were the powerhouse that kept the business working and growing. Visits to tape service customers, however, gave me the opportunity to travel as far afield as California and Japan.

A real landmark came in 1973 or 1974 when Lockheed Dialog chose Inspec as one of their first four or five online databases. The early years of commercial online services were a head-to-head fight between Dialog and SDC (System Development Corporation). It would be nice to think that Roger Summit’s good judgement in choosing Inspec so early was one of the factors that made Dialog the winner of that particular battle – and perhaps it was.

In retrospect, although they were varied and interesting enough, nothing in those years after 1970 could match the satisfaction, and even excitement, of the original development project; and I was ready to move on. Since then, although I have continued most of the time to be involved with what we now call “metadata” (it makes us feel more important), I have had little direct contact with scientific abstracting and indexing services. 

I still find that Inspec is an excellent calling card, particularly in the US library and information world. People I meet always know the name, and they always seem to think well of it. Long may it continue.