The 1980s was a golden era for home computing. Let’s explore it all over again, says Rosie Hattersley
(Credit: Marcin Wichary, Wikimedia Commons)
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the history of British home computing, a whole treasure trove of interviews, TV shows, programming code, and photos has been assembled for your delectation and inspiration. The BBC has launched an archive of the BBC Computer Literacy Project (CLP).
This delightful archive of home computing and information technology includes all 146 TV programmes from a ten-year endeavour that began 36 years ago.
Interviews with heroes of technology and personal computing – including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Apricot’s Roger Foster – are all now accessible from the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project Archive.
Launched back in 1982, the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project was intended to inspire and encourage a whole generation of coders and home computing enthusiasts. The impetus for its launch was a critical Horizon documentary in 1978 that suggested a ‘lack of awareness and competitiveness’ in the UK that meant Britain was likely to miss out on the social and economic benefits of microelectronics.
Such was the success of BBC Education’s CLP and the BBC Micro home computer (among others) that, says Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computers, “Britain [was] the most computer literate nation on Earth at the time and with the BBC computer created a generation of UK programmers who have become leaders in their field.”
The BBC Micro was a major influence on the creation of the Raspberry Pi, which was designed to capture the coding heyday of the 1980s and increase the number (and quality) of students applying to study computing at Cambridge University.
Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi co-founder, told The Centre for Computing History: “The first computer I owned was a BBC Micro.” The initial idea for the Raspberry Pi arose from talking about redoing the BBC Micro (as a response to MIT planning an Apple II clone).
The original BBC TV shows are bound to fascinate anyone investigating the UK personal computing evolution for the first time, while evoking nostalgia in those who remember the 1980s BBC Computer Literacy Project.
The archive came about due to the difficulty for academics and technology historians to easily access treasures from the CLP. While the TV footage and interviews have been recovered, radio shows broadcast under the CLP banner appear to have been lost.
Many of the TV shows make for interesting viewing from a present-day perspective. In May 1980, The Silicon Factor getting a paint-spraying robot in a car factory to memorise the actions involved in writing a name on a sheet of paper was ground-breaking. “The memory is recording every single unsteady movement of the pen,” explained presenter Bernard Falk before showing the robot accurately reproducing his writing.
Meanwhile 1988’s Electric Avenue issued rather prescient warnings about data sharing and theft.
Mainly, however, the archive is about showing the possibilities and ideas of digital pioneers. As with the original CLP resources, BBC chief technology and product officer Matthew Postgate says the Computer Literacy Project Archive is “a unique resource for teaching and learning that will hopefully encourage a new generation of computer users.”
Back in 1982, the Acorn-built BBC Micro computer launched as a means of allowing home users to explore programming and coding. Homes and schools quickly bought into the personal computing revolution, with many of today’s most ardent computer fans citing the BBC Micro and its BASIC language as their first programming experience. You can easily install BBC BASIC on your Raspberry Pi. Open a Terminal and enter:
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get install brandy
Then enter brandy at the command line to open the Brandy Basic V Interpreter. Note that you will need to use CAPS LOCK to enter BBC BASIC code, as you need to type every command in capitals.