A British Computing Pioneer

Register ‘Reg’ Benchmark is probably the UK’s foremost computer engineer from the early post-war period of British computing history. It was a time when computers were emerging from the secrecy of their vital war work. Of course, back in those days it was difficult to see – in time – how important and essential computers would become, with one expert stating he could see the UK needing at most three computers. However, that was before Benchmark arrived on the scene.

Benchmark initially worked at Bletchley Park, helping shorten the war – according to Churchill, by working on the decoding of the German military codes. But, while he was there he realised he was not very good at the major pastimes played by the staff at the secret facility when off duty. In their free time, some workers played competitive tennis tournaments. But Benchmark was never good enough to get further than the first round in any tournament.

Consequently, after the war, Benchmark decided to use some of the spare computing power of ANYAC, one of the first post-war computers, to improve his tennis game.

However, his first attempt at producing what late became known as Ping-Pong (an early forerunner of Pong) was hampered by the player having to have his moves coded and entered into the computer by hand. So even a short rally could take several days and with no way of visualising the game, it was rather dull, even by the standards of early computer games, or – for that matter – tennis itself.

He then tried a game, based on his experience as a voluntary anti-aircraft gunner during the Blitz. This was a game where a player on the ground attempts to shoot down flying craft above him. Benchmark was fascinated by Science Fiction at the time. So he decided that, in attempt to get away from the imagery of the recent war, that the flying craft should be alien spacecraft, rather than enemy aeroplanes.

Again, though, Benchmark was frustrated by the primitive I/O of the then current machines. Although, many could see his game had potential, the player’s moves, even though limited to Left, Right or Shoot, still had to be input through punch cards by a data operative. The computer’s responses were then printed out on paper.

Although, Benchmark did discover that a properly-designed program could – eventually – print out a silhouette-like image of a naked woman, provided the programmer took some care, this breakthrough was not really what he was looking for.

However, Benchmark did make some progress when asked for directions from the computer labs to his favourite after-hours drinking establishment. It was producing a written set of directions which gave him the idea of producing the first crude attempt at a text adventure.

As this was text input and output was not dependent upon real time responses, Benchmark discovered he was on to something. Especially when he realised that the chess by mail games he played with a friend in Hull could be replicated with the computer playing against an opponent.

By this time, though, computing power had increased considerably and innovations had continued to the point where a VDU could be used to interact with the computer. The keyboard added input, so that events could happen in real time.

It was during that year’s annual miner’s strike that Benchmark had another breakthrough. He invented a game where a miner had to go down a mine of increasingly complex and fiendishly-designed corridors, overcome obstacles and return with the coal.

However, at the computing departments budget was cut, Benchmark was told to stop wasting his time on computer games as they would never amount to anything. A broken man, Benchmark retired later that year, dying – some say of a broken heart – just months before the first commercial Pong arcade machines began to appear around the world.

 

Published by David Hadley

A Bloke. Occasionally points at ducks.

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