home | contents | previous | next

A Wonderful Thing is a Phillips Machine…

The Phillips machine, launched in 1950 has been described as 'a Heath Robinson device at its finest'. It is shown here before renovation began, in the Departmental Workshop, being critically assessed by Allan McRobie and Alistair Ross.In the Meade Room in the Dept of Applied Economics of Cambridge University stands a Phillips Machine, a device so cunning and ingenious that it can predict the running of the national economy to within 4% accuracy. And all by means of pipes and buckets, trickling with pink-coloured water, powered by a pump scavenged from the landing gear of a Lancaster bomber. It is a hydraulic computer, invented back in the 1950s by Bill Phillips.

Only fourteen Phillips Machines were ever made and the Cambridge machine is believed to be the only one still in a potentially-working condition. A conference to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Cambridge Economics Department is to be held in September this year, and invited alumni range from the Governor of the Bank of England to the Education Secretary. A team from the Engineering Department have undertaken to refurbish the Machine in time for this event.

Allan McRobie is coordinating the project at CUED "The machine is absolutely brilliant. We all know that engineers should have a knowledge of economics, but Phillips made an enormous contribution and showed that economists could learn much from engineering! Perhaps the Governor can be invited to work the monetary valves, and someone from Government the fiscal controls. Phillips was a genius and it is an honour to be involved with this project."

Those who would like to know more are recommended to read:
A.W.H. Phillips: Collected Works in Contemporary Perspective, Robert Leeson (ed), CUP 2002, £65.00.

number 12, summer '03 home | contents | previous | next