RCN Review: Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean

Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean

As someone who was first introduced to ‘real’ computers, as opposed to sinister science-fictional devices, during the British home computing revolution of the 1980s-90s, when I was in my twenties, I have always been fascinated by both the technical and the social history of computers, as well as the people who designed, created, built and marketed them. After all, in many cases, we owe our modern, computer-saturated, hyper-integrated world to them.

So, I was particularly intrigued to hear of a new book which focuses on a number of these aspects, since while there have been many excellent coffee-table type ‘nostalgia’ books about video/computer games and gaming published in the last few years, there’s not so much out there about the more serious side of things.

Do androids dream of electric nostalgia?

The new book I’m referring to is Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean, which was issued by mainstream publishers Bloomsbury in February, and a very interesting volume it is too, particularly bearing in mind its rather Kubrickian subtitle ‘How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer’.

The publishers are clearly targeting both the well-established popular science market and the boom in ‘cyber nostalgia’ and ‘retro computing’ which has already seen the rise and rise of the retro gaming book in recent years, but in a very different way which also makes the work of interest to historians, amateur or professional, of social and technological history.

Surprisingly in this sector of the market, the author is in fact an historian of science, currently based at the British Library, where he is working on Oral History of British Science, a major project concerned with the collecting and archiving of life-story interviews with 200 figures from the recent history of science and technology.

From the author’s mouth
Tom Lean (pic courtesy of the author)
Tom Lean (pic courtesy of the author)

Retro Computing News spoke to Tom Lean, who told us a little about himself and how he came to write the book, which offers an insight into the thinking that lies behind the words and pictures:

“I was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, best known (or perhaps not) as the home of the Dragon 32 home computer. I only actually saw a Dragon 32 once as a child, but both my parents were teachers so every summer they’d borrow a BBC Micro. I guess that, and the Commodore 64 they eventually got me, was my introduction to home computing, but by then it was the later 1980s and I think I probably missed microcomputing’s glory days at the start of the decade. How I became a historian of home computing is a long story, but the short version is: I sort of fell into doing a masters on the history of computing after studying history and computing as a joint degree at the university of Kent, because it seemed like a fairly logical choice at the time – what else are you going to with a degree in history and computing?

“After that, I was hooked, and ended up doing a PhD on the subject at university in Manchester, home also to the world’s first stored program computer, the 1948 ‘Manchester Baby‘ and Ocean Software, who probably wrote about half the 8-bit games I played as a child. So by background I’m an historian of science and technology, and I’m really into understanding the various ways that society interacts with technology and how people use it in ways that designers often didn’t foresee. I’ve been interested by the history of home computing for about a decade. I’m just old enough to have some nostalgia for it, but there’s something about technologies at that messy, formative stage when people haven’t quite figured out what they are for or what they should be like that fascinates me.”

On the subject of Electronic Dreams itself, Tom went on to say:

“The book was an idea I was playing around with for sometime. My day job is an oral historian of science and technology at National Life Stories at the British Library. Interviewing old scientists and engineers about their lives and work for Voices of Science (http://www.bl.uk/voices-of-science) is fascinating but it’s kept me pretty busy over the last few years. It was only a couple of years ago when Electronic Dreams was picked up for the splendid new popular science series from Bloomsbury-Sigma that I got the chance to write the book at last.”

So, this was going to be an historically-relevant work, not just a childhood nostalgia-fest for the modern age, and all the more interesting for it.  No page after page of glossy gaming graphics in this chunky tome; the illustrations, which are gathered together in a few pages in the centre of the book are a small but thoughtfully-chosen selection of pictures of historic, mostly British, home computers, with an early mainframe, a couple of magazine covers, a few period adverts and, inevitably, a handful of classic games, including two of my favourites, 3D Monster Maze on the Sinclair ZX81 and Elite on the BBC Micro, both classic achievements of their time and platforms.

The bulk of the book, which is of a slightly more academic style but very readable and by no means dry and dusty, seeks to interest the reader, and succeeds admirably, by presenting the fascinating story of how computers invaded British homes for the first time, as people set aside their science fiction-derived worries about ‘electronic brains’ and ‘Big Brother’ and embraced the newly-affordable wonder technology of the 1980s.  Little did we know, back then, that those somewhat paranoid concepts of the 1950s-80s would come back to bite us in this closely-networked 21st century, but that is another story…

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