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RIP Brian Wynne Oakley: Saviour of Bletchley Park

When Big Government was a good thing

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Obituary Brian Wynne Oakley has died aged 85. According to the Real Time Club, of which Oakley was a chairman, he "enjoyed a very distinguished career playing a major role in the development of computing both in the UK and in Europe".

Oakley was rarity: a civil servant who grasped the significance of information technology for the British economy, and cheerleader for IT who also valued the past.

Without Oakley, Conservative PM Maggie Thatcher might not have given IT a seat in government with her creation of a Minister of Information. Without his pushing, Bletchley Park might today be sitting underneath a housing estate in the Midlands.

Oakley, born on 10 October 1927, came from an era when people believed in the power of government to change society for the better. He channeled that sentiment into pushing the state into taking a direct role in helping Britain’s IT education and revolution.

Oakley was a senior member of the first Ministry of Technology, established by Harold Wilson in 1964 and later merged with the Department of Trade and Industry in 1970.

From MinTech, Oakley moved to the Science and Engineering Research Council, created in 1965, the group that would fund scientific and engineering research work.

He led the Alvey Programme, overhauling funding and research in software engineering, “intelligent knowledge based systems,” man-machine interaction, and advanced microelectronics. Alvey ensured there was, for the first time, coordinated research and collaboration between academia, government and industry, with funding running at £320m in 1982 prices.

It was during his work on Bletchley Park where his actions became more obvious.

In 1991, BT – owner of Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing and others worked on cracking German WWII encryption codes – was preparing for a future divorced from the past. After years of service, Bletchley was standing empty and BT wanted to sell the land to the Milton Keynes local authority, for whom the future was a housing development and supermarket. Oakley is credited by the Real Time Club as having enough influence to have the contract rescinded – or at least part of it. Large tracts of the grounds were sold but some remain with the original house, standing intact to this day as a Mecca for Turing-philes and fans of Britain’s computing history.

Oakley didn’t just feel it was important to preserve Brain’s computing past; he knew computing was vital to the future, too. The Real Time Club tells us Oakley lobbied the then-new Thatcher government to appoint the first Minister of Information and Computing Technology – the first MP to occupy the post was Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker, in 1981.

It was Baker who got the government to make 1982 as Information Technology Year, using his position to lobby and promote IT.

That might all sound quaint by today’s standards of investment, training and profile-raising by companies like Google, Intel and Apple. However, the Real Time Club says Oakley sprung into action after being told by Number 10 there could be no research grants for projects that involved a microcomputer "until IBM produced a professional machine".

With the Minister of Information and Computing Technology Oakley had not only convinced the government to do a U-turn but also persuaded it computers and computing were the future at a time when the political debate was dominated by how to find a way out of Britain's post-industrial decline. This was the dawn of the personal computer, when a thousand firms and entrepreneurs came into being as IBM produced its first PC in 1981: the Acorn 8088 running MS-DOS.

The Real Time Club notes that, remarkably for such a senior public figure – and one who seemed to specialise in generating waves of change – he had no enemies. ®

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