Defiance to compliance: visions of the computer in postwar Britain

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In a climate of profound uncertainty over Britain’s postwar status, some industrialists and policymakers sought solace in a ‘defiant modernist’ aesthetic, proposing radical technological transformations to circumvent economic constraints. The British computer industry, which briefly challenged that of the USA for technological sophistication, presents a revealing instance of this approach and its limitations. Early promoters, notably Vivian Bowden of Ferranti, shrewdly laid the rhetorical groundwork to position the new machines as the natural outcome of a uniquely British technological trajectory. Into the 1960s, however, their agenda was disrupted not only by economic realities, but also by the increasing importance of software and compatible systems as opposed to individual machines, and by growing public and industrial familiarity with computing in general. Promoters sought new points of differentiation, but had made little headway when a combination of national policy changes, growing market dominance by US-based corporations, and Anglo-French rapprochement rendered the British national exception largely unworkable. Its powerful rhetorical appeal, however, ensured that it never entirely disappeared.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-333
Number of pages24
JournalHistory and Technology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014

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