Questronic & the Ferranti Market Research Terminal (MRT) – The World’s First Pad?
The Questronic project concerned the 1978 development of the world’s first application-specific handheld computer. The Questronic was a small battery operated handheld computer designed specifically for the market research sector as a means to augment the regular clipboard schemes that are commonplace,in social and market research. The original 1978 prototype was called the Questronic and its later commercial implementation by Ferannti Plc was called Market Research Terminal (MRT) with the two models being labelled the MRT-100 and MRT 200 (where MRT was an acronym for “Market Research Terminal“).
An excellent description of the Questronic/MRT was given by Deborah Martell (Cardiff Business School, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology) in the 1987 book, “Management Information Systems: The Technology Challenge” (edited by Nigel Piercy) in which she described the product as follows:
“Accurate survey research is of utmost importance in marketing evaluations and NIT [new information technology] is improving this accuracy all the time. This has been shown by Rowley et-al in their description of the Questronic project at the University of Sheffield. The first commercialised product to evolve from this is the Ferranti Market Research Terminal (MRT). The MRT is a battery-operated, hand-held, data-capture terminal, which is an electronic replacement for the clipboard and pencil used for gathering information from consumers. This innovation offers real advantages for survey research, due to easier processing, since data is stored electronically, it is already in a form which can be directly entered into a computer. Likewise, the elimination of the data preparation stage decreases the errors created by human processing. More importantly survey results can be more topical since the MRT decreases the time delay in preparation. Other benefits accrue from decreased handling and stationary costs and increased interviewer productivity. Indeed the Questronic MRT procedures, with their instant processing abilities, allow more specific monitoring of TV effects. A particular attraction is the removal of the traditional “bottleneck” at the data preparation stage for input into the computer. Successful companies will, in the future, emphasise even more the matching of a product to the consumer requirements. Consequently, the old Henry Ford adage “you can have any colour you want, as long as its black” will be gone forever.” [Martell 87]
Perhaps the only thing to add to Deborah Martell’s description was that the MRT supported the easy transmission of collected data through telephone lines using a portable modem which, at the time, was cutting edge technology. To put these developments into context, the Internet was only commercialized in 1995 when NSFNET was decommissioned and the last barriers to using it for commercial purposes were removed (so the MRT was in use for over 10 years before the commercial Internet).
The idea for such a handheld terminal arose from the work of Sheffield University’s Dr Gwyn Rowley an eminent researcher and senior lecturer in the University’s Department of Geography. Dr Rowley had been pioneering the use of game playing techniques to increase the accuracy of surveys (eg to gather opinions on how people might spend local government tax they would be given monetary tokens that were insufficient to cover all the needs and therefore needed to make difficult choices on how to allocate their tokens) [Rowley & Wilson, 1975]. As Trinity College Dublin’s Holohan comments on Rowley’s pioneering work, “Being able to gather data on people’s needs, by directly monitoring what they create (as against what people say they may like, based on more abstract judgments), has the potential to provide more reliable, detailed, and timely information” [Holohan 2010]. Initially the Questronic work aimed to mimic this approach using handheld computing but quickly developed into a more generic multi-choice questionnaire clipboard emulation that addressed a much larger market. The Questronic was protected by a set of international patents covering both the novel concept, plus aspects of the innovative enabling technology. The original Questronic electronics was developed in the department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Sheffield University by Vic Callaghan and Keith Barker based on the conceptual ideas of Gwyn Rowley in the University’s Department of Geography.
Left: Original Questronic prototype; Middle: Evaluation in the field; Right; Data being downloaded and anaylsed.
After some use and evaluation by Dr Rowley during the years 1979 to 82, the product patents were licensed to Ferranti Plc who put it into production and marketed two generations of the product, labelled the MRT-100 and MRT-200 (some key people in Ferranti being John S Baldwin and Tom Kelly of their Wythenshawe and Bristol sites, respectively). These products deliberately were designed to resemble a traditional clipboard, in which verbose versions of the questions appeared on a printed questionnaire, while the answers were entered into the computer by the interviewer pressing a button on the keypad that reflected the interviewee’s answer. In part this strategy was adopted so as not to distract the interviewee with “whizzy” technology (computers were not part of everyday life in those days and the mere sight of one would arose curiosity and discussion!), and in other part reflected the limitations and cost of technology in those times. The MRT worked with a number of third party commercial software packages such as SNAP. In terms of research, a notable project was undertaken by the uniquely gifted Susi Daryanti, a talented researcher and Associate Professor at the Universitas Gadjah Mada, who moves smoothly between the worlds of Social Science and Computer Science. As part of a 1989 MSc [Daryanti 89], Susi created a versatile software package for social science research that became the basis of many follow on projects concerning computerised field collection of human data. One especially interesting follow-on project to Susi’s work was the 1990 MSc project by Paul Hughes which demonstrated how the MRT might be utilised by police forces to support investigative operations [Hughes 1990].
While it it is difficult to imagine the context of this product development in the late seventies, it is useful to remember that the IBM PC (that brought the Windows desktops and laptops we are now familiar with!) was only introduced in on the 12th August 1981 (which of course also launched Bill Gates’ Microsoft empire). If one discounts calculators, then handheld computers appeared in July 1980 with, perhaps, the first being the Radio Shack TRS-80 Pocket Computer. Later in the same year, Matsushita (now the Panasonic Corporation) produced a handheld computer marketed under the Panasonic and Quasar brand. However, these devices were, of course, general purpose handheld computers unlike the application-specific MRT introduced by Ferranti.
Ferranti, at that time, was a long established business (started 1882) that prospered in the second world war becoming a major defense supplier. After the war Ferranti extended into computing with its famous collaboration with Manchester University to produce the “Mark 1“, the worlds first commercial computer and later with Cambridge University producing the Atlas and Titan computers holding, at its peak, around 25% of the computing market. In fact, as Keith Barker recalls, “It may be of interest to note that the main frame computer at Sheffield University was a Ferranti machine that had, I think, the last non-semiconductor memory before silicon took over. It used a plated wire technology which had a good pedigree but, my view is that by the time a machine like ours (the Sheffield University mainframe) was commissioned there had been a leapfrog in storage technology to semiconductor devices“. Thus, in this respect it was fitting that Ferranti, together with Sheffield University, spearheaded another computing innovation to bring introduce world the first the world’s first commercial application-specific hand-held computer; the Ferranti MRT. Very sadly for such a pioneering company, in an ill-judged merger in 1989 with the American “International Signal & Control Group” (ISC), which created Ferranti International PLC they found themselves defrauded of approx. £215 million forcing the company into bankruptcy in December 1994. With that came the end of the Ferranti MRT and, effectively, Ferranti with its long lineage of UK innovative computing and electronics research, development and manufacture. A sad loss to the UK and the world!
The pictures below show the MRT-200 user instructions (or click this link for a pdf version).
Gwyn Rowley, Keith Barker & Victor Callaghan – January 2013
- Ann Holohan, Jeannette Chin, Victor Callaghan, Peter Muhlau, “The Digital Home: a New Locus of Social Science Research“. In The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research, Oxford University Press, 2010
- Susi Daryanti, “An Integrated Social Research Software Package”, MSc, Department of Computer Science, University of Essex, 1989
- Deborah A Martell (Cardiff Business School, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology) “Marketing Information and New Technology“, Chapter 8 in book Management Information Systems: The Technology Challenge, edited by Nigel Piercy, published by Nichols Publishing Company, New York, ISBN 0-89397-260-6 (also published by Croom-Helm Ltd, Beckenham, Kent BR3 1AT), p163, 1987.
- Paul Hughes “An Experimental Software Package to Support the Use of Field Terminals in Criminal Investigative Work”, MSc, Department of Computer Science, University of Essex, 1990.
- Rowley, G., & Wilson, S. (1975). “The analysis of housing and travel preferences: A
gaming approach”, Environment and Planning 7(2), 171–177.
- Gwyn Rowley, Keith Barker, Victor Callaghan, “The Questronic Project and the Ferranti MRT 100; A Boon For Survey Research“, Professional Geographer, 37(4), 1985. 459-463. Abstract: “The overall aim of the Questronic project has been to focus upon techniques in data recording, data preparation and processing for computer input. The development and subsequent commercialization of these specific routines has come to fruition with the production of the Ferranti MRT 100. This initial product of the Questronic project has major ramifications for behavioral-survey investigations.“
- Gwyn Rowley, Keith Barker, Victor Callaghan, (1986) “The Market Research Terminal & Developments in Survey Research“, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 20 Issue: 2, pp.35 – 39. Abstract: “Reports on survey-behavioural research in a major and fundamental development – the Questronic project based at the University of Sheffield (UK), and its first product, the Ferranti Market Research Terminal (MRT). States that the MRT is a battery-operated, hand-held data-capture terminal and it is a replacement for the usual questionnaire necessity – clipboard and pencil. Describes the MRT and its functions including keyboard and electronic storage, so aiding survey research, both economic and operational. Lists out the operations and benefits in detail enabling the user a fast, modern aid for use with questionnaires. Goes on to give further developing procedures and includes a contact address for further information regarding the importance of development MRT routines in survey research”
- Wikipedia entry for ‘The Ferranti MRT‘.