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

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…