Computing, the British way

I’ve *loved* reading [amazon_link id=”1472918339″ target=”_blank” ]Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer [/amazon_link]by Tom Lean. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable mix of business history and social observation, written with the enthusiasm and affection of somebody who got his first Commodore 64 at the age of 8 as a Christmas present.

[amazon_image id=”1472918339″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer[/amazon_image]

The book starts with Britain’s pioneering role in computing, opening with Manchester’s ‘Baby’, the first electronic stored program computer, built on wartime expertise. It then skips straight to the late 1970s to explore why conditions then enabled the flourishing of a number of innovative computer manufacturers in the UK, and alongside this supply the expansion of mass market demand. Parts of the story are very familiar, including the competition between Sinclair and Acorn so well told in Micro Men. Other parts are less familiar. I for one didn’t know anything about Prestel, and why it failed where France’s Minitel succeeded so well. One key difference was that the French state gave business and home users free terminals at the rate of 10,000 a week by 1984. Impossible to envisage Mrs Thatcher ever thinking that a good idea.

The book has a very nice chapter on the origins and vitality of the UK games industry too. I love some of the early games: Dennis Through the Drinking Glass featured Dennis Thatcher hunting around 10 Downing Street for a G&T while trying to avoid Mrs T. There was a game based on the TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet, which gave users the chance to play a Geordie brickie building a wall in Dusseldorf – the book doesn’t say how successful this was. The commercially unsuccessful Deus Ex Machina featured Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee, historian E.P.Thompson, rock star Ian Dury and comedian Frankie Howerd; astronomer Patrick Moore turned the gig down. Fabulous.

The book highlights the key role in the spread of computing and programming played by the famous BBC Micro, a complex but hugely successful initiative by the BBC. Many of the successful video games pioneers, including David Braben, started off with this machine, which was also familiar to many from school. The book’s epilogue features the Raspberry Pi – it was obviously written before the launch of the BBC’s MicroBit, now going free to all Year 7 high school students in Britain to prepare them to move on to the Raspberry Pi and other coding efforts.

The hope of course is that these tiny new computers will inspire another generation to innovate and create in the industry. But the history of the 1980s personal computer industry shows as well the importance of the scale and sophistication of American competitors. It is clearly right to try to familiarise and even excite all young people with the potential of the beautiful new machines, but achieving large-scale industrial success with them will need some strategic thinking by the government, of which there is disappointingly little sign at present.

7 thoughts on “Computing, the British way

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  3. Unrelated to the above but I couldn’t resist posting this: Many years ago I picked up a book with an interesting title in my workplace llibrary. This was before I was seriously interested in economics. I read a few chapters before I had to return the book and was mightily interested. The title stuck in my head but not the author. Yesterday I thought: “I would like to read the whole book now.” And so I looked up the author of “Sex, drugs and economics” … 🙂

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