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An Online Lecture from Jonathan Aylen

British Railways’ first computer based train operating system

TOPS (Total Operations Processing System) was a computer system implemented by British Railways (BR) from 1973 to control its freight traffic. It allowed BR to keep tabs on its rolling stock across the whole rail network using IBM 370 mainframe computers in London. It was a major step towards modern management of railways in the UK.

TOPS was developed in the USA through collaboration between IBM and Southern Pacific. The software had its origins in the US Strategic Air Command’s SAGE – Semi-Automatic Ground Environment – system which gave early warning of Soviet bomber attacks on the US. TOPS was not so much “swords into ploughshares” as “Cold War to Coal Trains”.

The research exhibited in this talk is the summary of a collaboration between Bob Gwynne of the National Railway Museum, York and Jonathan Aylen to understand the history of computerisation on British Railways. The research shows how railways shaped society and their contribution to modern management.

Questions may be submitted via email before the lecture to events@Newcomen.com or via Zoom chat during the lecture.

About the Speaker

Jonathan Aylen is President of the Newcomen Society and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Manchester.

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