The rollercoaster history of computing in the UK from Amstrad to Sinclair

'How 1980s Britain fell in love with the computer.'

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A vintage Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the classic British computers discussed in a new book about the history of UK computing.

Image: Wikipedia

While there are plenty of books about the history of computing in Silicon Valley and the US, computing in the UK has been perhaps less well covered. Now academic Tom Lean has tried to set the record straight with his new book, Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer.

ZDNet: Tell us about the origins of your book.
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Lean: "There was very conscious effort by the British government to get the nation interested in computing in a way that I haven't seen for any other technology."

Image: Tom Lean

Tom Lean: I am a science graduate but when you look at how I went from there to writing this book, it is a long story. My first degree was half in computing and half was in history. But really, half was science and half was a history of science degree.

Halfway through that I thought, 'I am really enjoying this so maybe I should do a masters'.

Then a lecturer suggested, why don't you do a sort of social history or the history of computing? I thought, 'that's quite good because it means I will go from studying computing and history to studying the history of computing'.

I did a master's degree, primarily looking at the Sinclair and the Sinclair scene in the early 1980s. I finished that and then went through the normal milk round of graduates and sending out lots of job applications.

I was going through that process when a chap came up to me and said, 'why don't you do a [PhD] looking at the whole 1980s computer boom?' So I did that at the University of Manchester.

I graduated in 2009 and it gives you some idea of the work involved, as the book is just coming out now. As I did the degree I always had the idea of getting it out in some publishable form but thought that if I did that it would turn into some sort of academic monograph that costs about £75 and nobody ever reads.

Instead, I got a job at the British Library running round and listening to scientist and engineers. I still had the idea for the book but as I was busy, I put it on the back burner for some time.

Then, as luck would have it, I managed to get a book deal about two years ago and went from there.

So rather than an interest in history, it was an interest in technology that was driving you?

Well, I had always been fascinated by technology and especially that sort of weird early stage when nobody was really sure what the technology should look like.

The sort of hokey version of this story, I suppose, is that I was 10 years old when I discovered a ZX81 in my father's shed -- and that was somewhere around 1991.

I was wondering what on earth this weird contraption was and I was told it was a computer. I thought, 'It can't possibly be a computer!', and I wanted to know more.

I have always had this interest in any sort of weird technology that didn't go somewhere. So I then went on the academic route, looking at the sort of academic tools that people could use to interpret technology. I was trying to figure out the difference between what the creators of the technology were trying to do and what the users actually did with the technology.

The disjoint between that is absolutely fascinating. On top of that, I was also interested in the future history of work and technology and what it would mean.

If you look at the 1970s and 1980s in the UK, we did get into technology in a big way.

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Very much so. It is interesting when you look at what people felt at that time. Looking back at the 1970s, they knew full well that this thing called the microchip was coming.

When you look back to then, the government in the UK was looking for some way forward for the country and things like micro computing seemed like something that they might take a stab at and hope that something may come out of that.

It was a time of turmoil in the UK, things like the three-day-week, and the Conservative government at the time in dispute with the miners and so on. So when they looked at an industry like technology, that does not have a high work force, so they were probably attracted to that.

There was a sort of establishment hope that maybe Britain would move in that direction. There was very conscious effort by the British government to get the nation interested in computing in a way that I haven't seen for any other technology.

Once these things called computers were released, you could see that there clearly was an appetite there amongst the British population to get their hands on a computer.

And then you got all these stories spread amongst the workforce of how computers were stealing their jobs. So there were definitely strands of all these things.

Looking back, was there a widespread interest in computers?

You do get the sense that personal computing did come from this sort of groundswell. Having interviewed so many people who were doing things like writing computer games during the 1980s just to find out what their computer could do, you do get that.

That journey from that sort of interest to creating a product that people want to buy was a tremendous example of how an industry can be created just out of people's interest in technology.

Skipping forward, what do you think happened then? Did people simply lose interest in technology?

There are two parts to this answer. On the one hand, you had people thinking that computing was this weird technology that was going to take over the world and was going to steal your job.

I think we got over that in the 1980s. Now we have seen computers get more and more complex but, at the same time, they have sort of disguised the technology and computers have become easier and easier to use.

When you think of computers today, there are many layers now that are between you and what is actually going on and this makes things much simpler. Apple products are fantastic at this. There is just this tremendous user interface so that you have no conception of what is actually going on inside it.

Where we are now is almost a turning point. Now everybody wants everything, but since the financial crash of 2007 we have gone from just using things to starting to make stuff again. We have turned a corner in the way people have gone from thinking about technology to understanding technology.

Now it is not enough just to use stuff, but we need to understand it and interact with it.

In a sense [in the UK] we have come full circle, from where in the 1980s we learned how to use the technology and make the most out of using it, through to the stage where we got used to the computer doing everything for us, until now when we are learning and doing things with the technology again.

Are you a technologist at home? Do you have your own computer museum?

You know, I think I am always at the back of the curve in this. I have a couple of friends who work in IT and have all sorts of technology and they are amused that I use a phone I bought years ago.

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Electronic Dreams: How Britain Learned to Love the Computer • By Tom Lean • Bloomsbury • 288 pages • ISBN: 978-1-4729-1833-8 • £16.99

I find people who are interested in technology really interesting. I am not at the forefront myself.

You pulled together a lot of information for the book. Was that mainly from interviews with people? How much was from reading the publications of the day?

I try and interview the people themselves. Partly because that is where I started when I was doing my PhD. What I saw was that the people of that time were not very good at keeping records of what they are doing. However, the retro computing market has done a fantastic job of preserving the technology of the time.

The interviews were good at giving you a perspective of what was happening at the time and what you quickly learn is that what people thought was happening was often very different from what was actually happening.

One of the computers that you talk about that caught my eye was the Dragon 32. What do you think about that story?

That was really interesting. That was born in South Wales where the traditional industry was coal mining and suddenly they were producing this fantastic new technology.

At the time, it offered a vision of the future. The bright new future for British manufacturing.

But writing about it was very difficult. If you look at any of the other computers coming out at that time, somebody, somewhere will have done a history [of it], but not the Dragon. It is one of those real holes.

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