Monarchy and technology in history

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
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

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...

...in which she was beautiful, but never consummated because the reality was somewhat different — thus prefiguring internet dating by nearly 500 years. Henry also managed to persuade the powerful monks of the era that command line software was the way forward, not the faddish new graphical user interfaces — that mistake cost them everything in the famous DOS illusion of the monasteries.

Queen Elizabeth Google

Queen Elizabeth II provides proof of her familiarity with modern technology. Photo credit: Google

After Henry, Elizabeth. Her long and eventful reign withstood the despatch of a compact Armada that crashed before it could cause any damage. Famously, she died unwed — although Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was her closest love, politics intervened and he had to go on to become a floppy disk magnate and office supplies supremo. When she died, the succession went to James VI of Scotland who promptly networked England and Scotland in the Act of Union.

Robert the Bruce and forcible upgrades

Scotland had not been backward in monarchical IT — Robert the Bruce had once searched a web sight for the answer to his motivational problems — and James proved more than up to the task. Although married, he practised open standards — especially with the Earl of Buckingham — and he was very fault-tolerant. It is said that when the servers went down at the Court of King James it was not always a matter of misery.

Charles, although not pin-compatible with some of his father's habits, was equally fond of a very strict client-server configuration when it came to him and his subjects. However, an attempt to forcibly upgrade Scotland to a more recent revision of church documentation resulted in outright rebellion: cack-handed management helped this to spread across the rest of the network and before long the populace logged off. The monarchy suffered a head-crash shortly afterwards, leading to an experimental Commonwealth system being brought online by Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell, backups and Victoria's voice

When it came to stained glass, Cromwell's puritans had nothing but a bad word for windows, a hatred for icons and a dislike for multimedia flummery in all its forms. Attempts to open up the Celtic market were not entirely successful, and after a while the monarchy was restored, thanks to an off-site backup kept abroad. Charles II learned the importance of firewalls after some problems in the City of London in 1666, while an Apple interface issue with Newton was a matter of some gravity in Lincolnshire.

After Charles II's demise, his brother James II took over. Not a popular monarch, the customer base took exception to his attempts to reinstall some old drivers and introduce Romeing again. Not for us, said the Brits, who thought the future was brighter if the future was Orange and promptly went to Holland to pick up a replacement system. William and Mary popped over for a bit and left the keys for Queen Anne.

Then came an unending series of Georges. George I spoke no English and preferred to live in Hannover, where he could get easy access to CeBIT. George II did a final spot of debugging of the network at Culloden, oversaw rapid expansion of the system in America and the first real world-wide web. George III saw a management buy-out of the American office and promptly went mad — not the first time that reaction has been engendered in the UK by colonial capers — and handed over to George IV at the same time as Babbage built his amazing mechanical device. There was a William who everyone wisely forgets and then — Victoria.

Victoria's reign saw the invention of the telephone, telegraph, wireless, much of modern chemistry, much of modern physics, medicine and modern warfare. She was having none of it, although Albert was dead keen on gadgets. Her reaction to the telephone? "It was faint", and she refused to have one installed. However, she did consent to having her voice recorded onto a wax cylinder for delivery to an irksome Ethiopian king to make him more amenable in sorting out a border dispute. By her royal command the cylinder was broken after play, but someone made a copy that is still in existence — the first monarch whose voice survives into the information age.

Princess Diana and online ancestry

And so into the 20th century. After a dodgy start, King George V got the idea by instigating a Christmas broadcast to the Empire on the newly formed BBC in 1932. The BBC has been there for royal abdications, funerals, weddings and coronations ever since. Prince Philip is the royal patron for the Radio Society of Great Britain, which cheers radio hams up a lot, and he was also the target for the first widely publicised computer hack in the UK when his Prestel mailbox was rudely violated by some very naughty boys.

The royal website is full of nice pictures of crowns, smiling Windsors, and some family trees that repay close examination.

Princess Diana's use of mobile phones was well documented, while Charles continues to carry out voice recognition tests on plants. The royal website is full of nice pictures of crowns, smiling Windsors, and some family trees that repay close examination.

In the end, it's got us all an extra day off — so even the grumpy republicans among us can raise a glass to the Saxe-Coburg Gothas. And has anyone seen a working copy of the Domesday book on laserdisk yet?

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