Monarchy and technology in history

Summary:The British royal family has long taken an interest in high technology. As the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, we review a hitherto hidden part of the UK's history

At this time of national rejoicing, one sector remains curiously silent: information technology.

It's long been thought that the British royal family — representing as it does feudalism, anachronism and a deep respect for tradition over modernity — has had little contact with IT and even less interest. This is a shame. The Windsors, like many of their historical antecedents, have been heavily involved with the cutting edge of many technologies — just look at Charles I — and while the public might just note the odd website here, the occasional Twitter feed there, there are many other stories to be told.

Ethelred the Unready and Bluetooth

Our story starts in 1010, when Ethelred II commissioned the first personal information management software. It was still in beta by 1013, when he both acquired his nickname — the Unready — and was deposed, thus starting a long tradition of flexible deadlines in the industry and management shake-ups when things go wrong.

Ethelred the Unready

Ethelred II commissioned the first personal information management software, which was still in beta when he was deposed.

In an attempt to improve internal communications, a strategy of more open reporting was put into place. This gave Edward the Confessor, Ethelred's son, his nickname. He practiced internationalisation by smiting some Norwegians, the occasional Welshman and Macbeth. He was also the first English monarch to make a connection with Bluetooth by marrying Edith, great-great granddaughter of Danish king Harold Bluetooth. Following a long and happy reign he died peacefully, only slightly distressed by his inability to make Word correctly display runes in footnotes.

A hostile takeover in 1066 and some inappropriate use of pointers resulted in terminal eyestrain for the then-king Harold. His replacement, William, ordered a major survey of the country, to be placed on laserdisc and read by a BBC microcomputer. This wasn't ready when the data had been gathered, so he implemented a contingency plan and published using oak-gall data stored on a deceased mammal epidermal substrate: this ink-on-parchment technology has proved durable but could not be shrunk much beyond the hundred-thousand micron mark.

Henry II, Richard and modern bureaucracy

The next monarch of note was Henry II, institutor of the Europe-wide web of intrigue called the PlantageNet. He adopted a robust attitude to interference from head office by proclaiming loudly: "Who will rid me of this turbulent vice-president for international liaison?" and getting Thomas Becket smashed out of his skull in the Canterbury office. But perhaps his greatest contribution to IT was the invention of modern bureaucracy, with its infinite ability to absorb IT spend without showing the slightest sign of improvement — a skill which has subsequently seen companies such as Siemens become enormously successful without anyone knowing quite what it is it does.

Then came King Richard, who perfected teleworking by spending only 10 months of his 10-year reign at home. The rest of the time was spent as a crusading road warrior par excellence, and his love of and heavy dependence on telephone technology was recognised in his nickname, the LineHeart.

For the remainder of the PlantageNet period, various noble institutions were started under royal patronage such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, thus setting in place the chain of events that would lead to the Sinclair Spectrum and the C5.

After a plague of viruses across the land, leading to a revolt among the workers that was promptly put down, the period finished with an enormous War of the OSes, when York battled Lancaster for the right to fight the French. This finally got sorted out with a cost-benefit analysis spreadsheet, when Henry VII managed to fill in the DOS worth field. English kings had their privy councils — the PCs — but in Scotland, they had their Macs: a basic incompatibility that would cause problems for a while yet.

Lots of kings called Richard, Henry and Edward pranced around the place, providing Shakespeare with lots of material and actors with permanent employment but not advancing the cause of computers by much. Richard III got some bad press, in particular for reputedly imprisoning the two princes in the Tower of London and doing away with them: however, modern research shows that they were just really stuck into a game of Halo on the Xbox and forgot to come out of their room for 15 years.

Henry, Elizabeth and internet dating

And so, with ominous echoes of the times to come, the medieval period draws to a close. With the accession of King Henry VII, the Early Modern period starts, England begins its long haul up to world domination and winning the World Cup, the English language settles down to become the instrument of power, beauty and precision so beloved of marketing departments, and IT takes several more lurches forward.

Henry VIII remains one of our most famous — and favourite — kings, remembered for a multiplicity of wives and a concomitant dislike of Popes. Historical students will remember that his fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was made on the basis of Holbein's oil painting...

Topics: Tech Industry

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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