Skip to main content

Electronic Dreams - Tom Lean ****

At the end of Tom Lean's book, subtitled 'How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer' is an epilogue where he points out the remarkable success of the cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi computer, which has sold over 6 million units in just a few years. He puts this, at least in part, down to nostalgia for the early days of home computers - and certainly any UK readers of the right age will feel a wave of that nostalgia when they read this book and come across their first home computers.

There have been plenty of books on the introduction of microcomputers in the US, but far less on the distinctive British experience, so this was a welcome addition to the field. Unlike When Computing Got Personal, it doesn't try to take on the whole PC revolution, but concentrates on the distinctive concept of the home computer. The major stars here are the output of Sinclair, Acorn (responsible for the BBC computers that were the school standard in the UK for years) and Commodore. Between them, these brands dominated the home computer market in the UK, where the likes of the Apple II hardly made a mark as they were far too expensive.

What is truly fascinating is the consideration of why this home computer boom happened, and why it ended. As Lean makes clear, early on, no one really had a clue about what a computer could do in the home. The most frequent suggestion seems to have been to use them as a way to store and organise recipes. What emerged initially was an exploratory process. Many purchasers just wanted to get their hands on a computer, to try it out and learn. Key to this was the quality of BASIC provided - because most of the early users were programming for themselves.

When the killer app came - and this is how we can distinguish home computers from PCs - it was not the spreadsheet, or anything else business oriented. Yes, people did do a spot of business work on home computers, but these limited devices were not good at page-based work, typically only displaying 40 characters across a screen. The killer app was games. Games made the home computer and then, to some degree, killed it. Because once users had moved away from that experimental phase (recaptured by the Raspberry Pi), the distinctive nature of home computers became less significant. Coupled with the rise of the IBM PC and the Mac, which began to provide games as well as their primary business-oriented uses, the likes of Sinclair and Commodore were doomed. The old home computers became relegated to the toy cupboard.

Generally, the book works well, though in a couple of chapters the author does slightly lose the audience by being too much of an enthusiast, giving us a little too much information. There is also one statement that's dubious. Commenting on the point and click interface used in the ill-fated BBC laser-disc Domesday project, Lean comments how advanced this was in a system built between 1984 and 1986, contrasting it with Apple's first attempt at a graphical user interface, Lisa, which came out in 1983, and pretty much flopped. This is true, but disingenuous, as the Mac was launched in early 1984 - and it was such a huge success that it's hard to believe the developers of the Domesday project were unaware of.

This is a book that may have limited appeal outside the UK, but for anyone who was here in the 80s and got a feel for the excitement and sheer novelty that having a computer in the home for the first time brought, it's an essential.



Hardback 
Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…