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Tom Lean - Four Way Interview

Tom Lean is a historian of science and technology.  He has a PhD on the history of computing and a particular interest in old technologies and the people who made and used them.  In his day job he records scientists and engineers life stories for an oral history archive project at the British Library, helping to preserve the memories of scientists' pasts for future generations. His new book is Electronic Dreams – How 1980's Britain Learned to Love the Home Computer.

Why Science? 

It's really more the history of science and technology for me, and particularly their interaction with the world at large. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of complex systems involving technologies, science, people, organisations, ideas and more, and seeing how all the parts fit together and interact. I'm interested in how science and technology develop over time and the way that society, the things that we think and do, helps to shape those developments. 

Why this book? 

I've been fascinated by 1980s home computing for years; I even did a PhD on it. The home computer boom was the moment of first contact between millions of people and computers, when they became everyday appliances, not just giant electronic brains for big business and Big Brother. But the whole thing was so uncertain, so gloriously messy in practice, and no one was sure how it would turn out. There were so many different ideas about what a computer in the home was for, so many idiosyncratic designs of computer available, so many agendas at work. To people learning to program for themselves, it was a fascinating logic puzzle; to the kids it turned into a video games system; to the government it was going to be the technology that dragged the country into the information age and made Britain great again. Margaret Thatcher even showed off a Sinclair ZX Spectrum to the Prime Minister of Japan! Tying all that together into a bigger story about how 80's Britain learned to love the home computer has been a joy and something of a nostalgia trip for me – there aren't many people who get to play Manic Miner and call it research!

What's exciting you now? 

I'm really into current media stories about the social impact of disruptive information technologies and automation, how robots and computers will take our jobs and how society and the economy will have to adapt. Everyone seems to forget that back in the 1970s the techno-prophets were predicting  the same things with the same consequences, brought about by the 'Microchip Revolution' sweeping the world. We're still living through that revolution now, but people talk about it like it's a new thing. The answer then was teaching people to become computer literate to avoid being left behind. These days the answer is called learning to code, but amounts to pretty much the same thing. History really does repeat itself and it's intriguing to watch. 

What's next?

Hard to say right now, I have a few ideas floating around but I'm waiting for some of them to stick. For the last few years I've roamed the country interviewing scientists and engineers about their life stories as an oral historian for National Life Stories at the British Library. I've talked to everyone from physicists and rocket scientists to electrical engineers and bridge designers – it's been a real adventure and it would be great to find some ways of telling those stories. 


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