TCG and me

| January 18, 2023

Mike Barraclough (7 June 1943 – 1 October 2022) was a long-serving staff member at TCG, one of Australia’s oldest information technology firms.  Open Forum is proud to publish a series of extracts from his unfinished memoir as a tribute to him and his work in the domestic computer sector. 

Back in the 1960s, IBM used to charge more for a month for leasing a small computer than the cost of a luxury British car – in those days, a Rover 3500, the Lexus of yesterday.

And that was for a computer with 8kb of memory and 256kb of disk, and yes that’s Kb, not Mb, and certainly nowhere near today’s gigabytes. To put it in perspective, that expensive computer had 0.00000125 of a modern smart phone’s memory for a small fraction of the price of a car.

These were “technical” computers, rather than the behemoths used in accounting departments that could have an exceptional 16Kb of memory stored on a series of wall-to-wall magnetic tape drives.

Innovation being what it is, several companies started to provide minicomputers with slowly improving specs. These included now defunct names such as General Automation, Data General, Digital Equipment DEC and Varian.

These machines were a step-up from the wired core memory of the early IBM machines and of course sold for a vastly lower price, allowing DEC to become the #2 computer supplier after IBM. DEC was later consumed by Compaq, which in turn was bought by Hewlett Packard (HP) when the PC explosion occurred.

But back to the minicomputers, which the company I worked for in London was using to process data from oil wells.  Opportunistically, this small company of two – three if you included the owner – had also opened a company in Australia to process data from the rapidly expanding oil exploration activity ‘down under.’

Unfortunately, business took a downturn and I was sent from a cold and wet January in London to a blisteringly hot Sydney. I was given a one-way economy ticket, with the owner telling me I would easily make enough money to pay for my return trip. How gullible one can be, but who’s not up to an adventure in their mid-20s?

The idea was to move our Australian “operations” – which consisted of one man – to share office space and a computer with another small Australian company – TCG. My immediate task was to achieve this to help make our operations profitable.

A first brush with TCG

It was with something of a “gin lag” from the flight and the after effects of much stronger Australian beer than I was used to that we got started with TCG. TCG emerged from what in today’s terminology would be called a ‘tech wreck’, its core staff having previously worked in the computer department of a large mining consulting company which had fallen on hard times.

These staff managed to acquire some of that company’s third-party customers in lieu of back salaries and had started a firm of their own. TCG had also acquired a DEC minicomputer from another failed mining consultancy company.

In those days, most geeks spent an hour working the mining stock market before actually putting a hand onto the workplace grindstone, but now there was work to be done, and this high risk / high gain playtime had to be put on the back burner.

Before the advent of minicomputers, companies used large mainframe computers produced by a handful of vendors. To share the costs, time was often  brokered out to other firms, in a process known as time sharing. Everyone’s heard of cloud computing today, and time sharing was its equivalent half a century ago, there is nothing new under the sun!

My tiny Anglo-Australian company was running some of its software services on a mammoth and expensive mainframe operated as a time-sharing bureau by CDC – another large but now defunct computer company. However, there was one small difficulty – we were in arrears, with no money to access the computer. This was a tough life for one guy alone in the country, when the idea of accepting a company cheque was regarded as more of an attempt at humour than debt reduction.

Somehow after an appeal to debtors – fortunately, there were some – additional funds were received. As company cheques were somewhat frowned upon, cash was the only option. So, a large bundle of paper notes was presented to the behemoths’ accounts department to ensure we could retain our data.

The only issue then was their claim they had no means of accepting cash, but nevertheless, two days later we were able to retrieve our programs and data and transfer them across to TCG’s minicomputer to achieve a big cost reduction.

Thus, my initial task in Australia was completed and I was delighted to return to the cool of England, my wife, two basset hounds, and my favourite pet, Sam the gibbon – yes, that small member of the ape family.

That was the first step – really a long plane ride – to becoming part of TCG, a fortnight’s visit to Australia that ultimately saw this POM spent the next few decades with TCG. What follows is a personal account of my multiple decades with TCG, and TCG’s multiple decades with me.

The second part of this series continues tomorrow.