THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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14 posts categorized "Modern history"

20 November 2019

Hollywood Fights Back

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Written by Delaina Sepko, Sound Collections Researcher.

Hollywood Fights Back is a two part radio programme made and financed by the Committee for the First Amendment and broadcast on the American network ABC.

The episodes aired on 26 October 1947 and 2 November 1947 respectively.

The programme's content is spread across 6 shellac discs - also called 78s - which are automatically coupled for seamless broadcast playback.

This programme was made in reaction to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings led by Representative J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey into so-called subversive, Communist activities of private citizens, government officials and businesses.

In November 1946 Thomas took over HUAC, which had been running in various forms since the early 1930s, and he immediately took aim at Hollywood and what he considered a Communist influenced motion picture industry. He targeted actors, producers, screenwriters and directors for their suspected Communist beliefs and for supposedly spreading propaganda in their films.

In September 1947 Thomas summoned dozens of Hollywood actors and screenwriters before HUAC but only ten appeared for questioning. This group would become known as the Hollywood Ten. Thomas opened the hearings with an imposing line up of ‘friendly’ witnesses ready to name names and publicly out colleagues they thought might be guilty. In this case, guilty could simply mean suspected. For example, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan - then President of the Screen Actors Guild - were both willing and generous when offering up names of suspected Communists and their sympathisers. Disney and Reagan merely mentioning colleagues or employee names during the hearings was enough to incriminate them. Despite these accusations and in the face of great pressure, the Hollywood Ten refused to answer any of the Committee's questions and citing the 5th Amendment to support their silence. Making an example of their insubordination, Thomas fined and sentenced the Hollywood Ten to jail for up to a year for their contempt of Congress.

Reacting to such a devastating blow dealt so close to home, Phillip Dune, Myrna Loy, John Huston and William Wyler formed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) in September 1947 and met for the first time in Ira Gershwin's living room. They were sympathetic to the Hollywood Ten's plight but they were also worried for their own careers. If the Hollywood Ten could be summoned before the HUAC and have their reputations and personal beliefs laid bare and publicly scrutinised, then so could Dune, Loy, Wyler or anyone else from the film industry. They described the CFA as a non-political group of stars, writers, producers, scientists, senators and men of letters.

Timed to coincide with the first episode’s broadcast, the CFA flew in two groups to Washington D.C. – one departing from Hollywood and the other from New York - to observe the hearings and to deliver a petition for redress of grievances to the US government, which is part of the First Amendment and a basic tenant of American democracy. In this case, the petition was a formal complaint made against the US government and under the Bill of Rights, any American citizen can lodge one. 

Marsha Hunt reads the CFA petition:

 Marsha Hunt (9CL0041856)

Redress petition coverRedress petition cover (Item 25466014, the National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

Accompanied by a PR campaign filled with photo shoots and interviews, this trip to Washington, D.C. was choreographed to make the most of the stars' high profile status, popularity and beloved public opinion and do so using as many mass media outlets as possible. This method ensured the CFA shared their message with as many Americans as possible, as many ways as possible. Hollywood Fights Back was one part of that campaign.

Hollywood Fights Back episode 1 disc labelHollywood Fights Back episode 1 disc label

The first episode served as an introduction to the HUAC, its hearings as well as the CFA and its objections to both. It was opened by Judy Garland and followed by Gene Kelly, who suggested that if Americans liked films made by those subpoenaed by HUAC, then they could be called subversive too. Kelly suggested the HUAC objected to and dismissed average Americans’ sensibilities and points of view.

Gene Kelly (9CL0041852)

The episode's contributors are quick to ask who is behind HUAC and what is its purpose? 

William Holden explained who spearheaded HUAC and should be held responsible for its members' actions.

William Holden (9CL0041854)

Its purpose, John Huston continues, was to propose legislation that counters subversive activities. By the time Hollywood Fights Back was broadcast, the HUAC had been in existence for nine years and in that time, it proposed only one piece of legislation that was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Hollywood Fights Back made a clear distinction between what it found unsavoury about HUAC investigations and what it considered unlawful. The CFA did not approve of the topics addressed at the hearings but their real objections were directed at the way the hearing were conducted. 

Myrna Loy (9CL0041854)

Lucille Ball, famous for her comedy routines and ability to make people laugh, was profoundly serious when she explained how she and her fellow CFA members thought HUAC was tarnishing the Bill of Rights. This document, fundamental to American democracy, and the civil liberties it granted to American citizens, she explained, was only one pillar of their democratic society and if that pillar were knocked over, then the rest could fall too. Ball was keen to make listeners understand that HUAC and the hearings threatened much more than the careers of Hollywood film stars.

Lucille Ball (9CL0041854)

And if Ball's comments fell on deaf ears, the CFA enlisted WW2 veteran Audie Murphy to help listeners appreciate the CFA's concerns. Murphy was the most decorated WW2 American veteran and was well known and well respected across America. Murphy explained how the HUAC was undoing all the hard work he and his fellow veterans did to win the war and protect democratic values and rights not just in the United States but across the globe.

Audie Murphy (9CL0041854)

Once so-called Communist propaganda was removed from Hollywood, who would the HUAC’s target next? How long would their hunt for allegedly subversive thoughts and activities continue? CFA members feared that other creative industries such as theatre and literature would come under the same devastating scrutiny. John Garfield explained some of the investigations already taking place into people working in these other fields.

John Garfield (9CL0041853)

As the episode concludes, Judy Garland makes another appearance and her pleas were aimed straight at the heart. She issued a call to arms inspired by duty and driven by fear of complacency.

Judy Garland (9CL0041852)

Hollywood Fights Back episode 2 disc labelHollywood Fights Back episode 2 disc label

The second episode focused on what the CFA considered HUAC civil liberty violations, a claim as dangerous for them to make as it was for those accused. If CFA members were not already under HUAC scrutiny, then they were aware they probably would be after their campaign. Simply mentioning sympathy for HUAC targets was enough to raise suspicion and potentially damage careers.

Danny Kaye voiced these concerns:

Danny Kaye (9CL0041856)

Nonetheless, the second episode addressed what CFA members believed was the heart of the matter: a committee acting with the government's blessing and devoted to rooting out un-American activities was conducting its affairs in an un-American way. Of course, the measure of 'American' was different for both sides and each would have argued their perspective was the true democratic one. CFA members were dedicated to the First Amendment, freedom of speech and the right to defend oneself against accusations; the HUAC was committed to identifying and stopping real or perceived ideas and individuals who they felt challenged and threatened democratic values and the historical status quo. Contributors to Hollywood Fights Back lambasted the HUAC again and again for treating witnesses as 'friendly' or 'unfriendly,' a practice they feared prejudiced public perception of the hearings and the people they targeted. HUAC did not, in the contributors' opinions, give the accused a fair chance to defend and protect themselves.

Using transcripts from their 27 October hearing visit, June Havoc, Groucho Marx and Keenan Wynn demonstrate the different approaches the HUAC took when questioning the two types of witnesses:

Havoc, Marx and Wynn (9CL0041856)

The HUAC offered one perspective - subversion and guilt - and in an attempt to balance the debate, Hollywood Fights Back offered alternative opinions. To accomplish that, the contributors read newspaper articles, editorials and public statements published around the country in which the authors questioned HUAC’s ethics or disagreed with its methods. These other voices in Hollywood Fights Back belong not just to film stars and other celebrities, although these high-profile figures were the ones that helped get peoples' attention, but also to average American citizens expressing their concern: if the HUAC’s reach extended to Hollywood, then it could certainly reach their home towns. How far would HUAC go, they asked?

Hollywood Fights Back set out to counter the HUAC and its sympathetic media presence and balance opinions about the ethical and legal nature of HUAC hearings. Yet its ultimate aim was higher. Contributors wanted the hearings abolished and buried so that they could never happen again. The episode concluded with another rally cry and encouraged listeners to consider what the HUAC was doing and to write and condemn its investigation.

Episode 1 contributors: Charles Boyer, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, John Huston, Danny Kaye, Marsha Hunt, Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Evelyn Keyes, Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, William Holden, Robert Ryan, Florence Eldridge, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, Lucille Ball, William Wyler, Fredric March, John Garfield, Deems Taylor, Artie Shaw, Elbert Thomas, Harley Kilgore, Archibald MacLeish, Claude Pepper, Glen Taylor, Vincent Price, Edward Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Audie Murphy, Humphrey Bogart, Van Heflin.

Episode 2 contributors: Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks, Rita Hayworth, Florence Eldridge, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid, June Havoc, Groucho Marx, Keenan Wynn, Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Hurd Hatfield, Peter Lorre, Burt Ives, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Wyatt, Vanessa Brown, Arthur Webb, Gene Kelly, George Kaufman, Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Thomas Mann, Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Richard Conte.

N.B. Most contemporary references to Episode 1’s broadcast date list it as 27 October 1947. The disc label for that episode and several newspaper articles from that time show that it was, in fact, 26 October.

Hollywood Fights Back episode announcement in The Evening Star, 25 Oct 1947Hollywood Fights Back episode announcement in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 25 Oct. 1947 (taken from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress)

The British Library Sound Archive has physical copies of both episodes:

Episode 1 - 9CL0041852, 9CL0041853, 9CL0041854

Episode 2 - 9CL0041855, 9CL0041856, 9CL0041857

They are also digitally available for on-site listening.

Follow @delainasepko, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news about our sound collections.

24 October 2019

Private Montford's army record

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Those of you who visited last year's British Library exhibition 'Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound' will remember a small display of one-of-a-kind voice-recording discs originally made by the public in coin-operated automatic booths.

Among these was a single 'Voices of the Forces' disc, loaned to us, like the other discs in this section, by the broadcaster Alan Dein.

The 'Voices of the Forces' scheme, which was inaugurated in April 1945, enabled members of the Forces to send messages home to their families. Each recording cost one shilling and ninepence, and the sender spoke into a microphone resembling a hand telephone, while the record was cut at a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) club by a Sergeant recordist. The discs were 5" (12.5 cm) in diameter and played at 78 rpm, so were quite limited in duration.

Voices of the Forces disc
Until this year, the Library had no good examples of these discs (although there must still be many out there in private hands) so we were delighted to be contacted by Piran Montford, who offered as a donation an original 1945 disc featuring his father Adrian Raphael Montford (aka 'Monty'), complete with its original mailing envelope. Although the disc was damaged, our head audio engineer Robert Cowlin was able to digitize and restore the recording.

Adrian Montford, now aged 96, had not heard the recording since he was a young man. He didn’t remember the contents, but suspected he still retained a strong Australian accent (he was born in London, but raised in Melbourne, Australia, before he returned with his family to live in Sutton in 1938).

The disc was recorded in either North Africa or Palestine in September 1945 and was posted home to his mother in Sutton.

Voices of the Forces disc envelope
The son of the sculptor Paul Raphael Montford, Adrian studied at Sutton Art School and then entered the Royal Academy, London, to study painting, and later sculpture

After the war broke out, Adrian joined the Home Guard in Sutton. He was called up on his 18th birthday, and served the entire war as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment.

Adrian was injured by a mine in the first battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, and developed gas gangrene. He had penicillin injected directly into his leg, a very early use of the medicine. In an Evening Argus interview from 17 September 2006, Adrian described his war experiences as '...traumatic, but all wars are traumatic. I didn't expect to survive.'

The end of the war in 1945 found Adrian in Palestine. While in Palestine, he took two flights to Florence, Italy, to study the art there. It was around this time he made the postal record of his voice.

Listen to Adrian Montford in 1945

Adrian was retained in the army for at least a year after the outbreak of peace. He was moved to Greece (see photo below of him taking a break from directing traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge near Athens). He ended up driving for a sergeant who patrolled the local brothels throwing out soldiers.

Adrian Montford resting from conducting traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge  Greece  1945

After being demobbed, Adrian returned to study at the Royal Academy in London.  

In 1951, he was awarded a 1st Landseer Prize of £20 and silver medal for a composition in sculpture. His first attempt to win the Prix de Rome led to a Picture Post magazine cover photo of the sculpture being cast. He attempted again, and in 1954 won the Prix de Rome for Buddha’s Sermon on the Flower.

Adrian went to study at the British School in Rome for two years. He returned from Italy to London, riding his Lambretta scooter over the Alps. Upon his return, he applied for a driving licence. A period of teaching at Sutton Art School and at Folkestone Art School followed.

Adrian taught sculpture for over 30 years at St Martin’s School of Art, with colleagues such as Anthony Caro and David Annesley, under the headship of Frank Martin; at this time, it was the one of the most famous sculpture departments in the world.

In August 1962, he married Selma Hope Nankivell (1934-), an artist and art lecturer. She became involved in preserving Brighton’s heritage, and was granted an MBE for this in 2006. They moved to Brighton in July 1965 with a young family to a house with a large garden. His life passion has been gardening, planting many of the trees to be found in the street. They still live in the same house 54 years later in 2019.

Adrian came out of retirement to teach life drawing at the Royal College of Art, London, ca. 1990, for some years, and he appeared on ITV’s South Bank Show around the same time, and in an article in The Times of 5 February 1991. He exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, continued to paint and make prints, and in later life, has been increasingly drawn to pottery.

Adrian has been a keen gardener, and although now more frail, he still takes great pleasure in the beautiful garden he has created. The photo below, taken by his son Piran Montford, shows Adrian in his garden studio, surrounded by both his sculpture and plants.

Adrian Montford in his studio  2019 - photo by Piran Montford

With grateful thanks to Piran Montford for the biographical information incorporated in this piece, and to Robert Cowlin for making the digital transfer of the disc.

06 June 2019

D-Day has come

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US troops disembark landing craftU.S. Soldiers disembark a landing craft at Normandy, France, June 6, 1944

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For those people in occupied countries, this was life changing news.  Seventy five years ago today, as the allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches to liberate France and countries beyond with Operation Overlord, these words were broadcast by the BBC.  By the end of the day, 6th June 1944, 150,000 Allied troops had landed on five Normandy beaches.

D-Day has come

In 1944 the radio – or wireless as it was known – was the main source of information.  The day before D-Day, known as D-Day minus one, the BBC broadcast instructions from Supreme Allied Command to those in occupied countries to make sure they would be listening to their radios on D-Day during the actual invasion of the Normandy beaches.

D-Day minus one

Meeting of the Supreme Command  Allied Expeditionary Force  London  1 February 1944 Meeting of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), 1 February 1944 

Reporter Richard North on board a ‘largish craft’ described the scene of the invasion during a live broadcast on the morning of 6th June 1944.

Eye witness on Normany coast

These recordings are from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

01 May 2019

The Duke of Wellington

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Sir Arthur Wellesley  1st Duke of WellingtonSir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Thomas Lawrence

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Two hundred and fifty years ago today, Arthur Wellesley, Field Marshall His Grace the Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin.  Most famous for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo where he defeated Napoleon in 1815, he was also Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Lords three times and Prime Minister twice while upon his death he was still Commander-in-chief of the British Army.

Wellington at Waterloo by Alexander HillingfordWellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Born in 1769, when he died at the age of eighty-three in 1852, Wellington was given a state funeral, a rare honour also accorded Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, Palmerston, Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill.  It is amazing to think that we can hear the voice of someone who attended the funeral of this great man born two and a half centuries ago. 

Ticket to Wellington's funeralTicket to the funeral (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

Frederick Mead was ninety-two years old when he recorded his memories of the occasion in 1940.  He can only have been four or five years of age at the time and is obviously reading from a prepared script, but we are hearing the voice of an eye-witness which creates a living connection to the event.  Mead describes queuing with his brother to see the lying in state at Chelsea Hospital and his uncle withdrawing them as he saw no hope of attaining their purpose with such a large crowd.  In this extract, he goes on to describe the funeral including a reference to the Thames Embankment which at that time did not exist.

This recording comes from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Frederick Mead 1940

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

04 September 2018

Sir Francis Chichester talks to Lady Chichester from Gipsy Moth IV

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Dr Emma Greenwood, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage, writes:

Sir Francis Chichester’s record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1966-1967 is a legendary accomplishment in yachting and sporting history. When he sailed back into Plymouth Sir Francis was greeted by a fleet of small boats, thousands of fans and a hysterical press.

This huge public interest was largely owing to the Marconi Kestrel radio telephone installed on board the yacht Gipsy Moth IV which enabled Sir Francis to send weekly newspaper despatches throughout his voyage.

This same radio set, however, also allowed Sir Francis to communicate, very occasionally, with his wife Lady Chichester. One of these rare conversations took place on 19 November 1966 and, fortunately for us, it was recorded and has now been preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

The recording itself is of poor quality, but this only reflects listening conditions at the time. Lady Chichester was on board the cruise ship SS Oriana at the time, on route to a planned rendezvous in Sydney, and the radio signal was weak and subject to lots of interference. Questions had to be repeated, voices raised, and speech slowed down. There was also an operator on the line throughout, so there was no privacy between the couple.

Sir Francis and Lady Chichester talking before Sydney (C1604/01)

In spite of the circumstances, both Sir Francis and Lady Chichester sound remarkably composed. Much of the 14 minute conversation is taken up with the exchange of essential information relating to their respective positions, rates of progress, weather conditions and expected arrival times into Sydney. It is hard to believe that this was the first time they had spoken in nearly three months, or imagine the dangers Sir Francis had already faced in his voyage.

Nevertheless, the ability to communicate via radio telephone, was clearly of great importance to both parties. After the voyage, Lady Chichester stated, ‘the radio communication with Gipsy Moth IV was something really marvellous, and the men who worked it were wonderful people’ (‘A Wife’s Part in High Adventure’ in Sir Francis Chichester, Gipsy Moth Circles the World (Bello, 2012), p. 249).As for Sir Francis, being able to speak directly to Lady Chichester provided a much-needed psychological boost. He signs off “very glad to hear your voice and you have all my love, all my love, goodbye, goodbye”. Later, he wrote in his account of the voyage, ‘It was a joy to hear her, and to be able to talk directly to her. This cheered me up immensely’ (Gipsy Moth Circles the World, p.93).

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

21 May 2018

Recording of the week: "We regret to inform you" - bad news from the sound archives

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This week's selection comes from David Govier, Oral History Archivist.

An Oral History of the Post Office includes memories of telegram delivery boys who delivered telegrams by hand with news of war casualties during the Second World War, and their reflections on what it was like delivering the bad news. Delivery boys were always told what the news was. They were instructed to ask if there was a man in the house first. They also had to wait at the door in case a reply was requested.

Roger Osborn (C1007/16) discusses the wording of war telegrams which would always start with the words “We regret to inform you…” A friend of Roger’s in Tring, Hertfordshire, ignored his instructions when delivering news of the killing of a woman’s husband. He noticed the woman out shopping and gave her the telegram. Her first reaction was to hit him over the head with her loaf of bread.

Des Callaghan (C1007/38) remembers delivering three telegrams in Nottingham to one home: one with the news that the son was missing, the second the incorrect news that he was dead, and the third that he was actually in a prisoner of war camp - and Des got a £1 note in return!

These extracts come from An Oral History of the Post Office, a collection of life story interviews with a sample of Royal Mail and Post Office staff in the UK conducted between 2001 and 2005. Interviewees include, of course, postmasters and postmistresses, postmen and postwomen but also those involved with postal sorting and transportation (by road, air and train); stamp design, printing and marketing (the story of the stamp); legal, purchasing and property departments. The collection also includes interviews with staff who worked in lesser-known departments such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre.

There is an emphasis within the collection on change within living memory from the 1930s to the 1990s: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Royal Mail and the Post Office.

A CD of extracts from the collection entitled “Speeding the Mail: an oral history of the post from the 1930s to the 1990s” was published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive in 2005, and over forty extracts are available online at British Library Sounds.

Speeding the Mail CD

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

11 May 2018

Trauma, narrative and theatre

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This blog is by Rib Davis, the 2018-2019 National Life Stories Goodison Fellow.

I am very excited to be embarking on my work as the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2018-2019. The project brings together my two loves, oral history and theatre, but in a way that is new for me. I am going to be exploring memory – and in particular the traumatic memories of Holocaust survivors – and how those memories are accessed differently at different points in life. So I will be particularly focusing on those Holocaust survivors in the oral history collection who have been interviewed on more than one occasion.

How do we form our memories of experiences – experiences which may be utterly chaotic – into something which we can present to ourselves and others as a coherent narrative, something that makes sense, something that might even have a meaning? How do we give it shape? How do we even choose the words? And as we create that narrative, each time we create it and re-create it, what is the process of choosing what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what is an aside? How much are were affected by our own previous tellings? And how are our versions of events informed by what we have since learned from others, and also by what has happened to us personally since the time of those events?

Then there is the interview itself. How is the interviewee feeling on that day? Who is the interviewer? What might their expectations be? What might the interviewee feel is expected of him or her? How much does the interviewer contribute, or question, or even lead? What can the interviewee cope with telling, or not?

IMG_20180511_141022554The original cassette tape from the 1988 interview with Barbara Stimler

Let us take one example. Barbara Stimler, born in Poland in 1927, endured appalling events, particularly in the Lodz/Litzmannstadt ghetto and then in Auschwitz. Barbara was interviewed a number of times; two of the interviews, from 1988 (for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project) and 1998 (for the Holocaust Survivors Centre Interviews) are archived in the British Library and accessible in the Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust collections on British Library Sounds. Here are two version of what was perhaps the most traumatic moment of Barbara’s life: when she saw her mother for the last time. I find both versions quite difficult to listen to.

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1988 (C410/004/05)

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1998 (C830/038/02)

Where does all this leave us as we try to put together History? Of course we all access our memories differently every time we recall an event. This does not mean that we have to decide which version is true and which is false. There may be many different versions of an event – from different people or even from one individual – all of which may be true (and this applies to written accounts as well as oral ones). The subtle differences between one version and another, and the reasons for those differences, are fascinating and perhaps informative. (However, present day politics also reminds us that there are also some statements that are simply false – not all statements are equal).

These are the issues – of memory, of trauma and of history - with which I will be dealing, not in the form of a paper or a lecture but as theatre. The challenge is not only to come to grips with the material and its context, in a respectful yet questioning way, but then to create a script which explores it in a form that is truly theatrical. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

The Living Memory of the Jewish Community was a National Life Stories project which ran between 1987 and 2000 and recorded 186 life stories with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children. The Holocaust Survivors' Centre Interviews was a National Life Stories collaborative project with the Jewish Care Holocaust Survivors' Centre which ran between 1993 and 1998 and gathered 154 audio life story testimonies. You can listen to full interviews from both collections on British Library Sounds.

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.