Chapter 15: Computer Programming

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

The outline of our programme for sugar beet improvement had been established by the end of the fifties, though much work had still to be done. There was never going to be the perfect, unimprovable variety. In fact that would have been disastrous for breeders, rather like the over-efficient rat catcher killing the last rat! We were still lacking in financial clout vis-a-vis the major companies of Germany, Sweden or Denmark, so that we still had to be as ingenious as we could in handling large numbers of trial plots and large masses of data, so as to squeeze out from them the maximum amount of information. With the development of good male-sterile lines we had (in spite of the teasing that went on at some of the American meetings) arrived substantially at the hybrid corn concept of improvement, with polyploidy added as an extra. We had to build a whole range of partitioned greenhouses ventilated with filtered air, so as to be able to produce inbred lines uncontaminated by stray pollen. We also built up a streamlined system for counting the chromosome number of thousands of plants.

At the outset these developments all concerned normal, multigerm seed, but very soon commercial requirements meant producing equivalent monogerms. We breeders worked side-by-side with selective herbicide manufacturers and the engineers who designed precision drills. In this way we jointly arrived at a product which could be grown with little or no hand labour. Our seed processing plant in Maldon and that of our colleagues the Johnsons in Boston had to be altered to cope with the new requirements. These problems were overcome and we were the first company to market a monogerm seed in Britain. At the outset it was not fully equivalent to multigerms in yield, but field labour costs were escalating and so it could still pay the farmer to use it. For one factory, Allscott, near Wellington in Shropshire, monogerms came just in time. The local labour union was holding out for such high rates for thinning the crop that beet cultivation looked like becoming uneconomic. Monogerms ended all that.

Sugar beet is a crop where the breeder has masses of numerical data to sort out. If, for instance, you are breeding a new variety of a flower, it can all be done visually. The breeder has to pick out the novel flower colour, shape or other easily visible character and he has to see whether the new variety goes down to some disease, and so on. This can be entirely a matter of observation, keeping the best and discarding the others. Sugar beet is not like that. The plot yields must be weighed and the weights in some way corrected for the variation in fertility which occurs from place to place in any field. The sugar content gives another set of figures, as does the content of any impurity which might lower the manufacturing quality. There are other considerations too, like the perennial problem of bolting and they all add up to a mighty mass of data.

One of the ways in which we were able to improve was in this data handling. Lilian’s brother, Wyn, who had worked in a bank for a while after leaving school and had then gone into the army for six years, was now working for a computer company, setting up computerised accountancy systems for various firms. He talked to me about computers and I was convinced that this was the thing for us. They were very different indeed from what they are today. At the time I did not aspire to be a programmer, because it involved handling endless strings of 1’s and O’s in the most tedious way, a process known as machine programming. The high-level languages which were to be so useful later were still to be invented. We went to the National Cash Register Company’s London office, where they had a small scientific programming department. It was difficult to define what we wanted: until you understand just what a computer can do, it is hard to set out the right specification for any programmes. We did our best and the programmes were written for us and we re-ran the 1968 data, already worked the hard way, to check the new system. After the inevitable adjustments had been made they worked well.

The computers of those days are hard to imagine now. The Elliott computer we used occupied a large room and had row upon row of pull-out units each with a line of valves, just like old-style radios. The whole set-up took twenty kilowatts of power and the room consequently needed a cooling system that also took twenty kilowatts. They could almost have run a district heating scheme as a by-product! Programmes went in on punched paper tape, data on 80-column punched cards and the output was also on punched tape. This was fed to a teleprinter, which printed one character at a time and regularly got overheated with the effort and needed a rest period to recuperate. During the 45 minutes or so it needed to print our data, it insisted on several such pauses. Every Friday afternoon the system was shut down and maintenance men went around, pulling the valve units out one at a time, putting them on a test bed, and replacing any which appeared to be getting tired. These were taken away for servicing. In spite of all this preventative medicine, the computer was still prone to breakdowns several times a week but even with all these limitations, its use was still well worthwhile.

After two or three years, National Cash Register closed down their science section and we looked around in vain for some other company which would provide the same service. Then we learnt that the Essex Technical College in Chelmsford had started an evening course in computer programming. Two languages were now available, FORTRAN and COBOL. There was also ALGOL, but that never quite made it. FORTRAN was clearly the one needed for handling scientific data. I had read in a copy of the Readers’ Digest that programming was a young person’s accomplishment and that you had a good chance of succeeding if you were under 21 and a still better chance if you were under 14. I objected, at the age of 54, to being written off by the journal known to some of my friends as Readers’ Disgust! I had by then recruited as an assistant a young man named lan Mitchell, who had graduated from Kenneth Mather’s department in Birmingham. He and I went to the lectures, run by the person who was in charge of the Essex County Council computer department. We listened and learnt the basics of the strange craft and then, for a fee, the lecturer agreed to come along to Woodham Mortimer on two evenings a week to help us get launched on our computerisation. lan and I used to write the programmes between his visits and he would see them, offer suggestions and generally help us to lick them into shape. The time came when he declared us competent and the evening sessions ended. He was a real friend, for he arranged for us to buy time on the County Council computer, where he and his staff were available as advisers in case of need.

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