I am a child of the 70s (born the same year as the Intel 4004) and my favourite toy was Lego, which I believe sparked the skills needed for computer programming. My father (born three months after Colossus went into operation at Bletchley) was a mechanical engineer, so I got the ‘Lego Technics’ kit for Christmas 1978, much to my delight and as I recall, his too.
However, just two years later, Dad trumped that by assembling an Acorn Atom (kit) computer and my life changed - from that day forth I was a devout bedroom coder.
The 80s was an amazing time to be a young computer geek - before we even knew what a geek was. While I have my issues with Thatcher’s government, it was instrumental in promoting computing and for that I am grateful.
Investing in a lifelong career
I remember avidly tuning in to Micro Live on BBC2 where, for example, I first learned about desktop publishing. In fact I was so enthusiastic about the idea that my mum and step-dad ended up investing £10,000 in an original Apple Mac (with the optional 20MB hard drive), laser printer and Adobe PageMaker software and single-handedly almost put the local (traditional hot-metal) printer out of business in just six months. Prior to the arrival of the Mac, mum couldn’t even work the VCR, these days she’s making videos on her laptop.
It seemed that new home computers were appearing almost weekly and among my classmates there was friendly rivalry between those who could stretch to a sensible BBC Micro (around £350) or a fun Sinclair Spectrum (around £190). There were the Commodore fans who got some sort of masochistic pleasure out of having to use Peek and Poke to do anything interesting, programming wise, and of course the devoutly alternative kids with their Sharp MZ-700 or the quirky Jupiter Ace (which had to be programmed in Forth). Of course, this boom was only possible because of the advent of the microprocessor and the rapidly falling prices of integrated circuits, not forgetting the foresight of pioneers like Sir Clive Sinclair who were committed to making home computing affordable.
Joining the coding revolution
The ‘home made’ games market emerged at the same time because to use these early machines you HAD to get into programming (something that a lot of kids missed out on in the late 90s and beyond thanks to the ease of use of Windows).
There were a couple of lads in our sixth form (two or three years older than me) who were rumoured to have made a small fortune writing computer games for the Spectrum and this is what probably motivated so many to teach ourselves ‘serious’ programming, although in my case it was a desire to interface my computer to external, self-built devices that drove me to learn assembly language and machine code.
My secondary school was very well equipped for the time, with around 20 BBC micros and even boasted a dedicated computer lab, so I had the opportunity to take computer studies as an ‘O’-level. How fantastic it was to get a qualification for just doing my hobby. Little did I realise what was to come.
Getting paid to do what you love
In sixth form, a careers advice questionnaire (remember those?) came up with the suggestion of computer engineer as a potential direction for me and my teenage mind was well and truly blown: I could actually make a living working with computers. They might as well have offered me a career in Lego building.
So, after completing a degree in computer science, I first found myself applying my hardware knowledge, to design and build a new control system (based on the classic Z80 CPU as used in the Spectrum) for the time cars at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York.
This was followed by a brief career with a PC builder / retailer that caught the wave of the multimedia revolution in the mid-90s. Then after five years working for a Microsoft solution provider partner, I got the opportunity to change career and become a tutor of digital technologies (we called it IT and computing in those days) at the local tech college and 17 years later, I’m still there.
Why not get a ‘proper job’?
Funnily enough, as I reflect on this, I remember the immortal words of my computer studies teacher from school, when I expressed an interest in teaching at the tender age of 16, ‘Good grief no! Get a proper job and earn some decent money!’ (Advice I frequently offer to my own students who are thinking of joining the noble profession, after graduation.)
But, would I consider going back into industry? I don’t think so, I get paid for talking about my favourite subject and still engage in my passion for DIY / bedroom coding / hardware tinkering, teaching students to design and build simple control systems with Arduino and PICAXE kits. I also frequently find myself developing teaching resources and support systems using those same skills.
Conserving the past, inspiring the future
Something that I have noticed over the years, which fellow Computer Conservation Society (CCS) members will appreciate, is that the keen, young computer scientists of tomorrow are still very much interested in the computer science of yesteryear. Like me, they find the story of how we got from Colossus, ENIAC and ‘the baby’ to the pocket-sized computers that are smartphones and mind-blowing supercomputers of today, absolutely fascinating.
They are astonished that I could create useful applications with an 8-bit, 1MHz, 32K (Dragon) computer or that I could get through my entire school and university life without the World Wide Web (born the year I graduated). Having a personal story to tell, makes it all the more real and interesting to them.
Back in March I delivered an extra-curricular lecture on 75 years of electronic computing, which has happened over my Dad’s lifetime. In fact, the lecture took place on his 75th birthday which really made it for me.
The question that prompted this article was: ‘What did the bedroom coders of the 1970s/80s ever do for us?’ Well, I hope that I manage to pass on my enthusiasm for computer science to the next generation and inspire them to become the computing professionals of the future by engaging with all the incredible opportunities they have now. The choice of computing related qualifications now offered at level-3 and degree level is beyond my wildest teenage dreams and I have even been fortunate to be actively involved with developing some of those.
I also make the most of the industry and BCS contacts I have made over the years, by bringing in expert speakers to give our students the most up-to-date picture of the exciting jobs available out there and the technologies that they should be engaging with.
What was it that made the 1980s so special?
What was it about that boom time of the 80s home computer revolution that made it so special? Am I just feeling middle-aged nostalgia? No, I think it is more than rose-tinted childhood memories. Computing made a quantum leap forward in that decade and those of us caught up in it have been taken on a life-changing journey.
The multi-media / internet revolution of the mid-90s had a similar effect, but to me, that was more about the development of the industry than individuals. In some ways computing was made too easy and, from my experience of teaching students who grew up in that era to program, they missed out on something special. At least kids have the Raspberry Pi to inspire them now.
The home computer revolution had a real DIY / punk feel, like the music scene at the end of the previous decade. We pretty much had to invent the rules for ourselves and left the adults standing bemused, wondering what had happened.
The microprocessor that changed the world
How much of what we see today is a result of what happened at that time? I struggle to think of any aspect of computing wasn’t affected by the advent of the microprocessor. Computing became accessible to the masses, it became normal to have computers in the home, kids became multi-lingual - some of us being fluent in many more machine languages than human languages. Our generation was then already equipped to embrace the World Wide Web, smartphone technology, e-commerce and cybersecurity.
Now it’s our turn to stand, slightly bemused, as millennials and generation Z embrace new technology in ways we never imagined as we pushed those early machines to their limit (my Dragon 32 was never quite the same after I discovered how to over-clock it by tweaking the SAM chip).
Inspire at your local school or college
In closing, may I take the opportunity to make an appeal on behalf of colleagues up and down the country, please support your local further education college in whatever way you can. We always welcome guest speakers, real-world case studies, opportunities for student work placements, graduate jobs and apprenticeships.
The sector consistently produces brilliant results, often for students who had bad experiences at school, and we achieve all this with a fraction of the resources and recognition that universities enjoy. Further education truly changes lives and I am very proud to be a small part of that.