IBM Hursley brings colour and speech to computing

Since 100BC, the site of IBM’s Hursley development lab has been variously an Iron Age hill fort, a castle, a hunting lodge, a hospital, aircraft workshops and is now the largest software development laboratory in Europe. Today, IBM Hursley has over 2,000 employees on site, including over 1,400 software developers and 29 Master Inventors. This team has applied for over 1,210 patents since the millennium, and the labs have consistently played a vital role in IBM’s worldwide R&D organisation.
Hursley has been responsible for several of the key products in the history of computing, including bringing speech and colour to computers for the very first time.

The IBM 3278 Talking Terminal

The IBM 3279 Colour Display Station

Talking Terminal

IBM's long-standing commitment to people with disabilities began in 1914 when IBM hired its first disabled employee, 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). IBM has also been committed to bringing technology to people with disabilities. In 1975, IBM developed the Model 1403 braille printer. In 1980, it developed a talking typewriter for people who were blind. This was followed in 1982 by a talking display terminal developed by IBM Hursley, bringing speech to computing and making it possible for blind programmers to directly access data on a computer screen.

The 3278 Model 2/Talking Terminal used synthesized speech to ‘read’ the screen’s contents to its visually handicapped user. The Talking Terminal was a direct descendent of IBM’s Audio Typing Unit, which opened new world processing opportunities to the blind two years before the Talking Terminal was created. Having seen and heard about IBM’s Audio Typing Unit, IBM was approached by a major UK customer who was interested in speech output units for computer terminals. IBM started work on the talking terminal immediately (June 1981) and by the August had already begun constructing the unit.

It was the first talking terminal in the country and was a huge help to blind programmers as well as providing additional computing opportunities for the blind and partially sighted.

From the day it was announced the Talking Terminal became famous. On the day of its release the BBC visited Hursley to film Hilary Monk, herself blind, using the screen. The following day TV South sent their main reporter to film the display. Both items were screened on February 1982.

Colour Display Station

In 1979 IBM brought colour to displays by introducing three brand new products.

The IBM 3279 Colour Display Station, which was developed, along with the supporting software, at IBM Hursley; the 3287 colour printer, and the 3274-51C terminal control unit. (The printer and the control unit were developed in the US)

Before this invention there was a persistent problem with colour TV with the lack of ‘colour convergence’. However, on the 3279, the problem was resolved by Hursley engineers, whose work was then patented.

The 3279 offered several features designed to increase efficiency and productivity. In addition to four or seven colour display, there was extended highlighting which provided underlining, ‘blinking’ and a reversal feature called reverse video. These features supplemented the already available brightness highlighting. The ability to create special symbols and pictures was provided with a combination of the ‘programmed symbols feature’ built into the hardware, and the Hurlsey-developed software. Made-to-measure symbols and pictures, such as language characters, mathematical symbols, and shading patterns, could be produced by the user at the keyboard. Colour was made available in two forms; the ‘base colour’ gave red, green, blue and white while ‘extended colour’ added yellow, turquoise and pink.

Charts and graphs could be produced on the screen with very little application programming effort, thanks to the presentation graphics feature which allowed the user to choose what kind of chart was needed from menus on the screen. Data was then entered and, from this, the system produced the chart which could be stored, retrieved, amended and stored again – the first of its kind.

Roy Gladman, product account manager at IBM, said at the time: “The equipment allows customers to introduce colour into their data processing networks for only one third more than the cost of monochrome. Compare that with the difference in price between black and white television and colour television and you can see why it has aroused so much interest. And for a very modest increase, the graphics features can be added as well.”

Sales for the colour display products moved well into the four figure range barely two weeks after the products were announced at a press conference in Hursley. At the conference Roy Gladman told journalists: “There is a growing demand for colour. Tests have shown that using colour improves efficiency and that, in turn, saves money.” He went on to say “We have made a major break through in the world of simple graphics for everyday commercial use. These facilities are now within the reach of most customers through low-cost additions to existing hardware and easy-to-use software”