Bloodhound on my trail: building the Ferranti Argus process control computer

Speakers: Jonathan Aylen
Date: Feb 16th 2012

Room open in advance (from 14.00) - meet up with society members.


Fellows Library of the Science Museum
Exhibition Road, London,SW7 2DD


A Bloodhound Mark 2 on Launcher at Duxford in 2008
Photo by Jonathan Aylen.

About the seminar

Digital computers for process control had different design objectives to computers for scientific or commercial use. The Ferranti Argus was among the first computers worldwide used for direct digital control. The Argus was invented at Ferranti´s Wythenshawe Automation Division, Manchester by Maurice Gribble. The starting point was a prototype digital computer developed for the Blue Envoy guided missile using low power hearing aid transistors.

Announced by Ferranti in November 1958, Argus came into civilian and military use in 1962. It was used for process control at a soda ash plant for ICI and as part of a Cold War missile guidance system for the Bloodhound Mark 2 guided missile deployed by the Royal Air Force. While a small team of engineers within Ferranti used Argus to develop digital techniques for guided missile control, another technically powerful group of civilian users led development of the Argus for direct digital control of an ICI chemical plant at Fleetwood, Lancashire.

The presentation discusses how the computer was invented and how it was developed in military and civilian contexts by small communities of practice. As projects shifted towards software development, teams became smaller and women programmers were given considerable responsibility.

Development of Argus highlights a key transition from analogue to digital control in manufacturing industry and defence during the early 1960s. Use of direct digital control by ICI followed commercial logic. The military were forced to switch to digital computation because technical advance in radar meant analogue calculations would not be accurate for Bloodhound Mark 2.

About the speaker

Jonathan Aylen is Senior Lecturer at Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School, at the University of Manchester. His recent publications focus on history of technology, forecasting wildfires and on innovation management.


For more about the hardware and use of the family of Ferranti Argus computers see the Argus Wikipedia entry.

Also see an article on the ARGUS computer by Maurice Gribble in the CCS Resurrection Bulletin for definitive and more technical background.

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