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CONTACT: Autumn 1959
 
The contents of the Bank's staff magazines were not confined exclusively to the activities of the staff, or to articles written by them. Pieces emanating from the staff of other Corporation Departments, or organisations related to the Bank were also included. This example was submitted by an employee of the Midlands Electricity Board, whose quarterly bills were paid over the Bank's counters in large numbers. The article gives some insight into the working relationship between the BMB and the MEB, and also describes a 'sophisticated' system that was soon to become antiquated with the continued development of computer systems.
 
MEB - PUNCHED CARD SYSTEM
A FEW NOTES ON THE PREPARATION AND ISSUE OF ELECTRICITY ACCOUNTS BY THE BIRMINGHAM SUB-AREA OF THE MIDLANDS ELECTRICITY BOARD BY THE USE OF PUNCHED CARD ELECTRONIC MACHINES.

It has been suggested that as a considerable number of consumers in the Birmingham Sub-Area of the Midlands Electricity Board pay their accounts at Branches of the Birmingham Municipal Bank it might be of interest to the Municipal Bank’s Staff to hear on broad lines how these accounts are issued and dealt with.

Some two years ago modern punched electronic machines were introduced to handle the preparation of the electricity accounts of which some 6,000 are issued daily. As punched card machines usually operate on number controls and are not alphabetical, each consumer is given a reference number which must be punched into all types of card used for billing in order to bring together the cards for each consumer at the final billing stage. Basically, to prepare and print each consumers’ account there are three types of punched card necessary:
 A Name and address
 B Consumption (units card)
 C Other charges ie hire, credit sale, unpaid balances etc

The variable card which alters from quarter to quarter is type B consumption card although much of the information even on this card is static. The static information is (a) consumer number, (b) income allocation code for financial account purposes and other statistical analysis, (c) an indication if there is more than one meter and (d) the number of primary units and price in each step of the Board’s standard tariff. The variable information is:
 Date of present meeting
 Present meter reading
 Previous meter reading

As, however, the present reading for the account now being issued becomes the previous reading for the next account, it will be seen that the “present reading” becomes static information for the subsequent account. Consumption cards for the next quarter are reproduced mechanically from the present quarter so that all the basic static information (a), (b), (c) and (d) plus the present reading reproduced into the previous reading column provides automatic pre-punching for the next quarter’s consumption card, the only new punching required then being the date of reading and actual reading.

These consumption cards are then processed through the electronic calculator which calculates from the meter readings the number of units used, prices out primary units at the appropriate rates, calculates the balance of units and prices these out at the balance unit rate and punches the answers including total amount due into the same card. At this stage an income analysis is prepared for financial accounts and other purposes. These consumption cards are then amalgamated with the consumer’s name and address card and other charges cards (if any) and the bills printed. The printing machines in use are capable of printing 150 lines a minute and as the average number of lines per bill is approximately 7 the machine can produce some 1,000 bills per hour. As each bill is produced an attached summary punch produces a bill balance card which in effect becomes a “sundry debtors ledger”. These bill balance cards are passed through an interpreter which prints in alpha the name, consumer number and amount due. These cards are filed in Zone, Control and Consumer Number order and anyone who has, in the course of his daily work, handled electricity accounts will recognise the reference number eg B/16/102/2150. The first two numbers (16) represent the Zone, the next three numbers (102) represent the Control within that Zone, and the last four numbers (2150) represent the Consumer Number within that control. In general use there are 10 Zones numbered from 11 to 20 and as each control contains approximately 600 accounts it will be seen that to maintain the billing programme it is necessary to process one of the controls from each of the 10 Zones daily.

With regard to the cash received side, there is a tear-off stub attached to each electricity account issued and as it is paid the stub is detached and eventually forwarded to the central office at Dale End. After agreeing totals of stubs with the summary of the total cash collections from each point of receipt ie Service Centres, District Offices and the Municipal Bank Branches, these stubs are sorted into Zones and then further sorted into Controls. The stubs are then passed to the section which holds the Bill Balance Cards and as these Bill Balance Cards are already interpreted it is quite a quick process to extract the outstanding cards working from receipted stubs. Having withdrawn the cards relating to the day’s sort these cards are passed through a tabulating machine which produces summary details of amounts paid giving sub-totals for each Zone and Control as a Sundry Debtors Accounts is maintained for each Control for each Zone. Thus from day to day the original cards representing the bills sent out for one Control become gradually less and less as the accounts are paid leaving at any one stage at a glance the accounts unpaid. It is, therefore, a simple process when the latest date for payment for a particular control has passed, to extract those cards and print final notices on the printing machine.

Of special interest perhaps to Municipal Bank Staff is the fact that several thousands of the Midlands Electricity Board consumers authorise the Bank to pay their electricity accounts to be extracted and sent to the Bank Head Office and not issued individually to the consumer. For this purpose a Municipal Bank reference is punched into the name and address card and appears adjacent to the name and address. Before accounts are issued they are inspected for various purposes and at this stage Municipal Bank accounts are withdrawn and once a week sorted under the Municipal Bank reference number and delivered to Head Office.

As previously mentioned the whole system of mechanised accounting depends upon a consumer reference number and very considerable thought was given to the system to be used because it had to be very flexible and yet it had to allow for new consumers to be introduced in the proper walking order. It had also to be allied to the existing meter reading system and quite obviously, and of necessity, the existing reading system was used as a starting point.

The Birmingham Sub-Area is divided into four main districts with Solihull and Sutton as two additional areas. Within each of the main Birmingham Districts two separate teams of meter readers were employed on a continuous daily meter reading system so that there were therefore 8 units for reading in Birmingham plus two additional ones for Sutton and Solihull making 10 in all, and these were designated Zones. As it was necessary to bill each day the output from all the meter readers each day it was decided to call the day’s output from each of the Zones a daily control and provision was made for a three-digit control number ie 100 up to 999. Because we require great flexibility the controls were numbered in two’s starting at 100, 102, 104, 106 etc. If a particular control, which covers approximately 600 consumers, grows too big there is a blank number adjacent which can be used and, therefore, a control can double itself and still fall within the proper numerical system with little disruption in the consumer numbers. Within each control of approximately 600, consumers’ numbers are allocated to them and provision was made for four digits ie up to 9999. This meant that when the original consumers were numbered they were numbered in fives ie 5, 10, 15, 20 etc, which in itself provides great flexibility because four consumers can be put in their proper order without disturbing the fifth.

It will be appreciated that in dealing with the issue of approximately 400,000 accounts per quarter there must be tight control within the organisation, of the input and output of production. As described above the input from the meter readers represent one control from each Zone per day and, therefore, a billing progress programme can be prepared from which at a glance it can be seen whether the programme is maintained and, after two years of experience in the operation of the consumers’ reference number, it has been felt that the time spent on evolving the original consumer reference number has attained what it set out to do ie provide a flexible consumer reference number which also acts as the basis for the Billing Progress Control.
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