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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…

Unexpected consequences

Still, Electronic Dreams, a title symbolically typeset on the cover in the classic IBM green screen/mainframe terminal VDU style used by serious computers of the day, offers a tale of other unexpected consequences, when the home computers which parents had bought to ‘educate’ their children ended up giving birth to what is one of the UK’s biggest success stories of the last thirty years, the home video games market.

The story of those heady days is not just one of success, inevitably; the ahead-of-its time Prestel communications network, while fairly popular in the UK (largely due to the wonderful Micronet 800 section, of which I myself helped edit a small corner!), was eventually shut down and  thrown away by BT (British Telecom), abandoning thousands of subscribers and transferring them to Compuserve at the beginning of the internet age.

There were giants

The most fascinating thing about the book, however, is how it looks at the remarkable people who were the behind the British boom. For example, often eccentric and unconventional characters like inventor and quintessential British ‘boffin’ Clive Sinclair and entrepreneurial whizz-kid and ‘barrow boy’ par excellence Alan Sugar, who amongst others made these magical devices not only affordable but essential in the home. And the crazy boomtown bedroom programmers who started out games programming with a Spectrum or a Commodore 64 in their bedrooms and ended up, in some cases, with Ferraris, mansions and new companies, some of which still survive in some form or other today. Of course, there were also us ‘children of the revolution’ who welcomed the future with open arms, whether we had practical uses for the new tech or were just interested in massacring alien invaders by the millions…

Turning the pages of history

You can get a glimpse into the ethos and depth of coverage of the book from the chapters:

Electronic Brains – a look at the early history of programmable computers and how they influenced science fiction, with an emphasis on British machines that tend to get neglected in some quarters, though some American computers naturally get a look in. Of particular interest are the ‘Manchester Baby’, EDSAC and LEO, but there’s also a nod towards Babbage and his ‘engines’. A particularly fun entry relates to WOTAN, supposedly installed in the London Post Office Tower in swinging 1966, a sinister machine which was actually a character in Doctor Who…

Hobbyists Create Microcomputers – the home computer actually arrived in 1975, with the American-made Altair 8800, but like the now phenomenally-collectable and much more rare Apple I, this was a machine for hobbyists used to soldering and assembling everything themselves from kits, and who were willing to delve into the depths of machine code programming and the like.  Meanwhile back in Britain there was, pretty much, a ready-made market for such devices in the hobby electronics and amateur radio sector, which was full of people who were not afraid to wield a soldering iron and follow the principles of Heath Robinson! Kit-based computers such as the NASCOM, Acorn System 1 and Science of Cambridge (later Sinclair) Mk14  were all the start of something big, as was the Amateur Computer Club, founded as early as 1972, and the beginnings of home computer magazine publishing.

Computers for the Man in the Street – the arrival of ‘cheap’ and relatively easy-to-use home computers in the form of the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81, while limited in their utility and of more use as a tool for self-training in computer science, heralded the start of the home computer boom as well as the computer games gold rush, which began as a cottage industry in the days of chunky, black and white graphics and text adventures. Affordability was the key, and sales were brisk, but the true revolution was yet to come.

Computer Literacy – back in 1978 the BBC TV documentary Now the Chips Are Down had presented a stark warning of the coming need for change. The 1980s were to be the age of computer literacy, characterised from 1982 by the BBC series’ The Computer Programme and Making the Most of the Micro, amongst others. It was to be the first and last time that the BBC sponsored a home computer manufacturer with its Computer Literacy Project, part of a larger state strategy to boot Britain into the computer age. It saw a competition ensue which was to make giants of Sinclair Research Ltd with its innovative and low-cost ZX Spectrum and Acorn Computers Ltd with the more expensive but more sophisticated BBC Micro, at least for a decade or so, and encouraged the start-up of a flood of other, ultimately less successful, British home computer manufacturers

The Boom – in the heyday of the British home computer revolution it was a bewildering experience entering a computer shop, and the flood of diverse and largely incompatible hardware and software ultimately overflowed into mainstream stores, even chemists like Boots and newsagents such as W.H. Smith! This was also the era of the good, the bad and the ugly of home computers as American and Japanese competitors entered the British market guns blazing, with varying degrees of success.

Two Information Revolutions That Weren’t – home computers were also seen as the herald of a revolution in telecommunications, and for a few years Britain stood on the brink of such a revolution via an online networking system named Prestel which used Viewdata protocols similar to Teletext on TV but interactive via the telephone lines. While offering a vision of home shopping and email, and popular with travel agents and computing hobbyists (the Prestel bulletin board Micronet 800 had around 12,000 subscribers when BT (British Telecom) closed it down in 1991, and Prestel as a whole about 90,000), the system never fulfilled its potential and was eventually overtaken by early developments in the Internet. And then there was the Domesday Book…

The Maturing of the Computer Game – from the millionaire teenage bedroom coder making pixelated Spectrum, C64 or Amstrad games on tape from home (a glamorous but slightly illusory figure who was as much a publicity gimmick for the budding games companies as a literal fact),  to the eventual rise of titans in the industry, some of which survive in different forms today, the British computer and video games industry went through decades of change and tribulations such as rampant piracy to became the high-tech economic tiger which, albeit in smaller numbers, still stands tall today, making thousands of sometimes epic games along the way.

The Unmaking of the Micro – well, it wasn’t going to last forever, was it? By the end of 1984 some at least of the writing was on the wall, for after a boom there’s usually a bust, or at least a decline and a time of change. But Christmas 1984 was, perhaps, the beginning of the end for the ‘home computer’ as such, with hundreds of thousands of once-popular micros going unsold. What happened? Well, apart from marketing hubris based on the Christmas 1983 sales, people’s wants and needs were changing; the rush for home computer literacy was waning, perhaps discouraged in homes by micros mostly being used for games, and off-the-shelf software availability meant there was less interest in DIY programming and more in practical systems to do useful things.  British home computer manufacturers’ reach began to exceed their grasp, and in the age of the QL and its design compromises, Sinclair stumbled, as did Commodore with its Plus/4.  In 1986 Sinclair fell into the hands of Amstrad, which since the arrival of the CPC range in 1983, followed by its business-oriented PCW and PC ranges, had already gotten a good foothold in the business market. And so, as the price of ‘serious’ computers began to fall, the era of the Apple Macintosh and the IBM PC compatible began, which eventually led us to where we are today…

Epilogue: Back to the Future?  So, did the home computer die out? Maybe not, despite the demise or transformation of most of the British computer manufacturers of the 1980s. Indeed, interest in them is growing day by day.  With the arrival of the British made and ultra-cheap but powerful (Acorn BBC Micro-descended) Raspberry Pi in 2012, sparking another kind of British home computer revolution (it was recently announced that more than 8 million Pi’s have been sold world-wide in 4 years, beating British record-holders the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (5 million sold) and Amstrad PCW (8 million), the boys were back in town, or at least their spiritual successors in the shape of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.  And who knows where that will lead, with the latest 64-bit Raspberry Pi 3 only recently on the market and being touted by some as a cheap desktop PC replacement as well as the ultimate hobby computer? And then there is the rise and rise of ‘retro computing’ where tens of thousands of hobbyists world-wide collect, restore, program and (inevitably) play games on home computers and more from the 1970s-1990s.

Today, Facebook is home to many of these retro computer hobbyists, collectors and, yes, historians amateur or professional, and is a hotbed of discussion, argument and, dare I say it, flame wars akin to the playground wars of the 1980s when schoolkids argued till the cows come home over which was better – the Sinclair ‘Speccy’ or the Commodore 64. Maybe some things never change…

Apart from the chapters very briefly hinted at above, there are in addition a few appendices including notes, and most usefully a list of further reading for those who want to follow up. Plus, that rarest of things, an index, which make Electronic Dreams doubly useful.

The verdict

You know, I love the colourful coffee-table games books, which have their own industry insight to offer (especially the company focused publications) as well as nostalgia, but I am also really glad to see additional scholarly in-depth history and analysis of a period in which I myself, a user of many British and other home micros back in the day, made a small contribution to the British home computer revolution as a computer magazine writer of the late 1980s-early 1990s, a computer club organiser (where did they all go?), and a contributing editor to a small corner of Micronet 800. This book focuses primarily on the 8-bit era, which is no bad thing, as that was the period when true titans of the British computer industry walked our land, people whose names have never been forgotten.

I have many happy memories of those years, and perhaps due to being a little older than the average micro user of the period, I also had many other interests and applications other than games for the computers I bought. This wide interest kept me going for decades, bypassing the console era, and is now coming full circle, as my personal home computer lab and study (aka ‘The Bit Cave’) is now full of buzzing, beeping, whizzing and chattering micros from those happier times. One man’s long-abandoned loft or car boot find, it seems, really is another man’s gem of techno archaeology or retro relic.

Tom Lean has approached his subject from a scholarly point of view, naturally, but his enthusiasm for the subject shines through and Electronic Dreams is a surprisingly engaging read, with a human perspective offering something both to those looking for nostalgia and budding techno historians. In a book this size (some 288 hardback pages) it’s not possible to cover everything, but you’ll very likely find something, or some viewpoint, that you’ve not found elsewhere. I’ve enjoyed reading it a great deal, and will find it a useful reference in future.

I can’t recommend this book too highly to budding computer historians or indeed any potential reader looking to put some meat on the bones of what they remember (or often, think they remember!) of the period,.  After all you probably are, dear reader, a child of that revolution as much as I.

Stuart Williams

Publisher’s book details

A review copy of Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean was kindly supplied by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Published: 11-02-2016

Format: Hardback Edition: 1st

Extent: 288 pages.

ISBN: 9781472918338

Imprint: Bloomsbury Sigma

Illustrations: 8pp colour section

Dimensions: 216 x 135 mm

RRP: £16.99

Online price: £15.29 – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/electronic-dreams-9781472918338/

Also available in EPUB ebook format £14.99