Lucifer throws light on TV electioneering 

1 February 2021


TVTimes cover

From the TVTimes for 20-26 September 1959

TELEVISION is making politics history. For, thanks to ITV, this is the first general election in which it is playing a major role.

The story of the campaign is being chronicled day by day in the news bulletins. Special programmes are being shown, which not only bring viewers face to face with the arguments and the personalities but also show how an election works and so help stimulate public interest.

What effect is all this having on voters? To what extent will people be influenced by what they have heard and seen over their TV sets when they go to the polls on October 8?

These are highly-important questions. The answers are eagerly awaited by the leaders of the political parties, for whom television is still something of an unknown factor, and by the TV executives, who are responsible for the special programmes that are being televised during the period of the election.

To find these answers – and find them quickly – a team of research workers who are making a special survey of TV and the election have called in the help of an electronic brain which they have named Lucifer.

This giant – £100,000-worth [£2.4m now, allowing for inflation] of winking lights, whirring wheels and miles of multi-coloured wires which link its thousands of brain cells – can work out in hours a mass of complicated statistics that would otherwise take a lifetime to compile.


Two men point at a rack of wires

Survey leader Joseph Trenaman sees Lucifer’s main wiring circuit


Head of the survey is Joseph Trenaman, who recently took up the newly-created post of Granada Television Fellow at Leeds University after a mammoth four year task at Oxford analysing viewing habits for the Nuffield Foundation.

He told me: “Television is obviously having a greater effect on the voter than ever before. At the last general election, only 40 per cent of the population had a TV set. Now the figure is 70 per cent.

“Our purpose in the survey that is now under way is to discover how far the political broadcasts help and influence a person’s decision to vote and the way he votes. We want to find out what opinions they have of the political leaders they see talking to them from their TV screens.

“And, to learn how effective television is in putting over the Party line, we want to find out what people know and understand of the election issues.”

Two men fiddle with parts inside a huge machine

A closer view of how the “brain” works

The survey, which is intended to show the effectiveness of TV electioneering in a general sense, is in fact being conducted in two Yorkshire constituencies. One is West Leeds; the other, Pudsey.

They have not been picked merely because of their nearness to Leeds University, headquarters of the survey. Said Joseph Trenaman: “There are several very good reasons why we chose them. For one thing, we wanted constituencies where there is a very close fight, which means a great deal of local political activity.

“In both constituencies the majority in previous elections has been about 5,000, with electorates of between 50,000 and 60,000. One had a Labour majority; the other a Conservative majority. And in both cases there are also Liberal candidates.

“Another reason is that at the last general election the proportion of the votes for the main parties in the two constituencies was roughly the same as in the national figure.”

One thousand people are being questioned during the survey. Their names are taken from the electoral register – one name is picked out of every 125 in the list – and each is the subject of a 15-minute interview. From each set of answers up to 40 independent facts are taken for feeding fito the electronic brain.

To see the brain in action I called on Dr A. S. Douglas, director of Leeds University electronic computing laboratory.

I found him in an old black-stone building with a high vaulted ceiling that was once a Baptist chapel. Sunlight filtered through the windows, only to be overpowered by batteries of fluorescent lamps that lit up the austere laboratory.


Three people around a desk, pointing at paper

Trenaman talks with Cynthia Seabrook, who is supervising the work for the survey


A woman hunches over a big box

Operator Barbara Stark (19) feeds a reel of facts into the machine

Where once stood rows of pews, now squatted steel-grey cabinets containing the brain’s intricate memory patterns. To a perpetual humming sound, green pinpoints of light flashed on the face of monitor screens on the control desk as reel after reel of punched tape were fed into the machine.

When the survey is over there will be more than 40,000 facts to be “swallowed” by the brain, converted into electrical charges and then to travel along the fine tracery of wires to be digested, analysed, compared and rejected … and finally produce masses of widely-assorted facts about TV and the election.

But the brain is not only being used to sort out the answers. It sets the questions, too!

Said Joseph Trenaman: “In fact, we could not have done without it. We started off with a preliminary survey to find out what questions we ought to ask. Instead of sitting in our office and thinking up what we regarded as the right questions, we invited groups of people – as many as 60 at a time – to watch telerecordings of party political broadcasts, and talked to them afterwards.

“What we learned was fed into the machine – and then it was left to work out the most acceptable questions.

“The brain works at the rate of 1,000 operations a minute, and it took just an hour to give us the list of questions. Without its help, we would not have been ready in time and this survey, which we think as of tremendous importance, would never have taken place.”


Looking down on the computer

A general view of Lucifer

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: Meet the Leeds University Computing Installation (Ferranti), a tortured way of making the acronym ‘Lucifer’. It was a Pegasus One, built in Manchester by Ferranti. Other models would go on to be used commercially, especially by British Rail, who used Pegasus One computer time from 1963 to allocate stock and produce timetables in a fraction of the time it had taken by hand.

The TVTimes article mentions ‘computing’ once and ‘computer’ not at all. If ‘computer’ had been mentioned, it may well have been spelled ‘computor’ – the spelling would not become fixed until surprisingly late into the 1960s. But however it was spelled, a computer was not something the average person in the street would have ever thought about, let alone seen in life. Computers, well into the 1980s, were the size of a room. They were noisy, hot and smelly. The things we think of now as computers, like the iMac I’m currently sat in front of, were referred to as ‘microcomputers’, even when they were huge like the Commodore PET, as they were tiny in comparison to what ‘computer’ had meant until they arrived. Hence the BBC Micro and its accompanying television show Micro Live.

Note how the Pegasus One is very manual, requiring instructions on paper tape and a team of computer scientists to constantly fiddle and tweak and monitor. The results produced would not appear on a screen, but instead either as a set of lights, each with a specific meaning, to be noted down on paper, or by producing another paper tape with holes in it that would then require translation into numbers. And the process was slow: 1,000 instructions a minute is 16 per second. We now count how many million instructions per second a computer processor can handle – on that scale, the Pegasus would be doing 0.000016 MIPS, if my maths is correct. By comparison, the Z80 processor in my ZX Spectrum in 1983 could do 0.58 MIPS. My Pentium III PC in 1999 could do 2,054 MIPS. This Intel i7 iMac can do 298,190 MIPS (more by having 4 ‘cores’, but that’s not important right now).

And next year, I will probably casually place this iMac at the back of a cupboard and walk away from it forever, setting up a new ARM M1 iMac, which will likely introduce measuring these things in billions of instructions per second… and start treating that like furniture too.

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