Saturday, December 19, 2009


Inmos was a state-funded semiconductor company set up in 1978 and hurriedly sold-off by the conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in 1984. The company retained its identity until 1994, when it was fully assimilated into SGS-Thomson - a european multinational.

The years in between proved to be an exciting and special time - at least for those of us who were there - and earlier this week a number of people met up to celebrate the fact.

There was no cabaret, there were no smoke machines, no self-congratulatory whooping. As this was the first such reunion ever (in this country at least), most people were content to meet old friends, to share stories and to catch up on current news. I had a great time myself - as I am sure others did too. We have Claire Maudsley to thank for organising it all.

As Iann Barron - one of the three founders - said in a short welcoming speech, although Inmos is commonly considered to have failed as a profitable enterprise it fostered a microelectronics culture around Bristol whose influence is felt to this day. As the old company slowly collapsed in on itself it sent out spores that grew into new start-ups: some flowering spectacularly before withering away, others growing into significant companies in their own right.

See The Inmos Legacy by Dick Selwood to find out more, as well as the Wikipedia entry on the Transputer to see what it was that kept us at work late into the evening and - on more than one occasion - through to the next morning.

For me, one of the most remarkable facts about those years was that - not content simply to design the Transputer (a groundbreaking, microscopic, computing machine) - we decided we might as well design everything else we were going to need, while we were at it: a new computer language (occam), the software used to design the chip, the operating system, the computers on which that software ran, the communication network, text editors and so on - everything.

It's not like that anymore.

Ah ... but things were done differently in those days. Your modern silicon chip, for all its staggering power and complexity, is a cold and soulless thing. The devices we made were lovingly shaped out of the living crystal, their datapaths as beautiful as fine oriental carpets, microcode as rich as any tapestry. And we secretly carved our initials into our work (a practice long since outlawed) and emblazoned the corners with depictions of mythical beasts, peculiar to our secret guilds.

I was talking to an old friend at the reunion. He told me how his daughter, home from university, had suddenly confessed that she had no idea what he did at work and would he tell her. He explained that he had been engaged for a number of years in designing the devices used to construct wireless networks. His daughter looked puzzled. "But that stuff just works, doesn't it?" she said.

If you stop to think about it - it's a great compliment.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautifully written account Mr Wilson! I was sorely disappointed not to be able to attend.