Worthy Engineers

This page is a continuation of our Heritage pages, where we are listing other eminent local engineers for whom we have not yet provided a plaque. The first of these is Murray Laver

Murray Laver

Murray Laver entered Plymouth College in 1925 as a scholarship boy, and later vividly remembered arriving in this public school with a strong Devonport accent and no Latin, Greek or trigonometry, and being kept in repeatedly until he had developed perfect copperplate handwriting. In 1933 he moved to Medway Technical College, preparing for various civil service entrance exams. He came first in the national entrance exam for the Post Office, and in 1935 went to work as an electronic engineer at the Radio Branch of the Post Office Research Laboratories in Dollis Hill, where he remained for the remainder of the 1930s and the 1940s. During this time he worked on very accurate quartz crystal clocks, resulting in what was known as the Booth-Laver type of clock in 1940, refined by 1943 to an accuracy of one part in 108. The Booth-Laver design was adopted in 1942 by the Greenwich Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time, the first quartz crystal clock to replace the free pendulum clock they had been using before this. While doing war-related research during the day Murray served as an Air Raid Warden at night during the London Blitz. In the 1950s, Murray became heavily involved in computers and was in due course transferred to Post Office Headquarters in London, where his expertise became increasingly important; the British government was becoming a major buyer and user of computers. During this period, he travelled several times to the USA on ocean liners to inspect and evaluate computers. He was intimately involved in the launching in 1957 of the first Premium Bond computer, ERNIE, as well as the first computerized billing system for the British telephone service. He was an early advocate of the role of computers in commercial, as well as in academic and scientific applications and recalled rejecting the judgment of others in the early 1950s that there was a demand for perhaps only 10, really powerful, computers worldwide, located in major research centres. During the 1960s and 1970s Murray rose through the ranks of the civil service, one of the first breed of ‘technocrats’ to do so in a service where technocrats had traditionally been seen as a lower caste. He did this first on secondment to HM Treasury and then, with the rank of Assistant Engineer in Chief, at the new Ministry of Technology formed as part of Harold Wilson’s ‘white hot technological revolution’. He worked closely with Frank Cousins and then Tony Benn as ministers, both of whom he remembered fondly. In the late 1960s, he moved back to the Post Office, becoming Director of the National Data Processing service and then joining the Board of the Post Office, as the member responsible for computing, when this was transformed from a government department into a nationalized industry. His biggest and most high-profile project during this period was LACES, the London Airport Cargo Electronic DP Scheme, commissioned in 1972 as one of the first big ‘on-line’, as opposed to batch, commercial computing applications. On his ‘retirement’, in July 1973, Murray and Kate moved immediately back to Devon, first to Sidmouth and later to Budleigh Salterton. Murray’s career continued. From 1974 to 1980 he was a member of the Board of the National Research and Development Corporation. In 1975 he became Visiting Professor in Computing at the University of Newcastle. From 1981 to 1987 he served as a particularly able Pro-chancellor of Exeter University. In 1988 the University awarded him the Honorary degree of Doctor of Science. And in 1990 a building, appropriately at that time housing the University’s central computing facility and Mathematics Department, was named after him.