Gary McNab of travelling education hub, The Code Show, tells Johanna Hamilton the history behind his project and why experiencing past technologies inspires the programmers of the future.

Hot on the heels of a successful career in industry, Gary began to share his significant computing knowledge as an ICT technician at local schools. The lack of understanding of where modern technologies had come from and a gap in the knowledge of computing educators and teachers inspired Gary to create The Code Show: A travelling workshop about 70s / 80s / 90s computer tech that engages primary school children in our rich computing history.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and The Code Show?

I came into teaching ten years ago and I couldn’t believe the IT curriculum didn’t teach children about the recent history of computing. I’m not talking about Alan Turing or the codebreakers, I wanted to share the history of computing from the mid-1970s. Home computers in the 70s / 80s, then the internet in the 90s and then social media in the early 2000s. It’s adopted as if it’s always been there and it hasn’t. The Code Show concept was a case of, ‘let me take you back to a time when computers were new in school’, because there was a time when there was only one computer per school.

From just one computer, to a computing revolution. How do you teach that? 

Firstly, we set up between 15 and 18 old computers from the 70s right through to present day machines with virtual reality. I’m basically telling the story that it was children - primary school children and secondary school children - that created the computing industry in this country. From bedroom programmers learning on things like ZX Spectrums and ZX81s to machines that were in universities. Yet the computing curriculum makes no mention of this.

People who grew up with and learnt to code on these primitive machines are still working in the industry. They’re still doing fabulous things and yet we don’t celebrate that achievement.

Certainly, things like the BBC literacy project, bringing computers into schools, the government recognising that we needed to upskill the nation and then the BBC jumping onboard. Why would we not celebrate that history? So that’s the reason behind the Code Show. I’m just trying to inspire people.

What reaction do you get to these classic computers?

The first thing I get is, ‘wow!’ And then when we go and we explain to them that even though an old machine is limited in its memory, it’s far more powerful than an iPad because you control what’s on the screen. You are able to control that device and that prospect of actually putting something on a computer and it responding to you is a powerful message.

Even though we have iPads and we have powerful PCs the actual ability to get inside these machines and find out how they work is very restricted. And it’s not really accessible for children or for teenagers to get into the nuts and bolts of the machines and to have access to them, to find out how they tick.

We explain to them, it only has a limited amount of memory - less than the capacity need to store the icon on one of your apps. Give them a mobile phone and they ask, ‘where’s the contact list?’ ‘Well there is no contact list. There’s a paper telephone directory.’ ‘Yeah but it’s over a thousand pages.’ ‘Yeah. Unless you knew anybody in those 1,000 pages then you don’t have any contacts.’

Then telling them, ‘You would have to order, and wait six months, for a telephone.’ And the same with a camera. You would go on holiday for two weeks, take a lot of pictures and wait for them to be developed. They always ask, ‘Why did it take so long?’ So, I’m explaining to them that because technology has evolved, this is how far it’s come in such a short period of time. You have the power now to make that technology over the next 20-30 years, even better.

Do you get the children to code with the old machines? 

We get them typing in from old computer magazines like Crash or Your Computer. And they’ll say, ‘why did you do this?’ Because that was it! There’s lot of head scratching but I tend to find that they don’t give up. Whereas they’ll give up on a computer that’s running Scratch or Python and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ There’s no resilience there. But when you give them the old technology, they question everything. The questions that they come out with are fascinating and you think, ‘Well if you can tap into this then this surely is a missing part of the jigsaw for the computing curriculum’.

How did you make the Code Show happen? 

I went to some of the Play Expo Events and I thought I could do this in an education setting. I’m based in Lancashire and looked at the logistics of taking a class of 30-45 children down to the Computing Museum of Cambridge. However, it would cost £1,200, plus risk assessments, travel time 4 or 5 hours. It’s just not viable. If the museum did a workshop in Lancashire, they’d charge £1,400. In today’s economic climate schools just don’t have that money.

So, I approached my headteacher about my Code Show idea and she just said, ‘bring it into school and we’ll see how it goes.’ I did a taster session and everyone enjoyed it, so, I thought ‘right, this is going to work’.

Do you think this will become more than a roadshow? 

Over the summer I’m working with the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park to bring the Code Show to children during the summer holidays and October half-term. They’re looking at collaborating because they wanted to do something similar but didn’t have the outreach capability.

This is one of the reasons why I wanted Code Show to be what it is today. We know about Alan Turing. We don’t so much know about Tommy Flowers. But we know about the codebreakers. We don’t so much know about the female programmers. We know a bit about Babbage. We know about Lovelace. But then after that, there’s nothing. And then we get to bedroom programmers. So, there is a gap there and I think by taking these machines in and saying, ‘these machines came along. This is what happened. This is how the bedroom programmers started. This is the computer and videogame industry you know today. This is the story of the past 35 years.’

With 40 children playing with your old machines, do you ever think ‘steady on there!’? 

What I always say to them is, ‘just be respectful of the machines. They are 35 years old, 40 years old some of them. Any problems, put your hand up.’ And to be fair we don’t have anybody going in and dragging things around. They are very respectful. I do find that I’ll take 20 machines with me and I’ll set 15 up because I can guarantee one or two will go bang because of the age. And it’s just a case of I’ll go back and I’ll swap a RAM chip or replace a power supply.

I’ve recently purchased a Sinclair C5. While today, electric vehicles which are becoming commonplace, 35 years ago Sir Clive Sinclair introduced the Sinclair C5 for the very same reason that we’re having to switch over to battery-powered vehicles now. I’m trying to tell the children that this is not a new concept. As a country we were a world leader. By giving them hands-on access, and this is the key - mess with it, play with it, have fun with it, question it and then come away and be inspired.

Do you think your classes inspire girls to look more at the STEM subjects? 

In 1979 we were looking at a new decade where were going to have to adopt the home computer and computing in general. Whereas we’re now in 2019 approaching a new decade where we’re having to adopt computing now and computing skills and STEM skills. So, we’re not really in too dissimilar a position.

Just before Easter, we had British Science Week and Equality running in the same week. I talked about Alan Turing, not just as a computing pioneer and codebreaker but as an equality message regarding his sexuality etc. I also touch on Margaret Heafield Hamilton and I’ll say to children, ‘Neil Armstrong once said that it was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind but what you do not know, it was a female programmer who programmed in less than 4K that put man on the moon - and that is girl power.’

We had female programmers during the Second World War, the 50s, 60s into the advent of silicon in the 70s and 80s. Women have always been there but misrepresented. There’s a fantastic book by Marie Hicks called Programmed Inequality, which talks about how the UK dismissed all the female programmers of the 60s and 70s. Very much to our detriment because if we had adopted a different mindset of promoting girls in computing and in STEM then, we’d be ahead now.

Do you think we will have more girl coders in the future? 

Absolutely. In my school my girl pupils are far better than the boys at coding. The boys are eager and they’ll jump in and they’ll struggle away and they’ll talk about how they can do this and that. The girls just sit there and they just do it. They have the determination to just push through.

I think by instilling in the girls and boys that it’s okay to make mistakes allows the children to just try. And this is what I say when I’m teaching computing, ‘If we get it wrong it doesn’t matter because we get to fix it. We get to break it down, find out why it’s gone wrong and fix it.’ I think children these days don’t get the opportunity to question as much. When things don’t work first time, then they need to wonder why and question that. I think we need to build on that.

Why is it so important to inspire the next generation? 

If we don’t inspire the next generation somebody else will. Another country will, whether it’s South Korea or America. If we don’t do it, we will just become purchasers of technology rather than creators of technology. We are a nation of pioneers and inventors. We led the computing world in the late 1970s and 1980s and we can do it again.