Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Command-line searching and acoustic couplers: BBC Computer Literacy Project videos

A large number of 1980s videos have been put on line documenting the "state of the art" and issues of the day, in the BBC Computer Literacy Project 1980-1989 website at There were a number of BBC TV series associated with the project. If you were (like me) around then, this will be a source of nostalgia. If not,  these could be a prompt for discussion around the impact of technology on our lives and work, and to highlight aspects of daily life that are taken for granted now, but which were seen as novel then.

Certainly a stimulus for then-and-now discussion is the episode Changing with the Times (1984), which looks at the changes in use of technology in producing newspapers at the New York Times and the implications for news production.

The episode on Electronic Information (1986: warning: it is narrated by Andrew Neil) includes an explanation of why legal information benefits from being searchable online, the dismal state of the UK database industry (LEXIS having taken over and closed down Eurolex), and the impact of Eddy Shah on the way news is produced.

The one prompting most nostalgia for me was It's on the computer (1982) "Storing information is what the great majority of computers are used for. But how much can they hold, and how can the stored information be easily retrieved?" This includes a trip to The British Library's science reading room** (I worked for the BL in the 1980s, including at this site) and later on a demonstration of searching, carried out by a former colleague (very slowly, command line, on a small screen).

The episode on Email (1986), includes a demonstration text search of World Reporter, and a presenter using a public telephone to send an email:  dialling up the local PSS (Packet Switched Network) node and embedding the handset into the acoustic coupler (see photo) of a portable terminal carried around in a small suitcase (I used one of those, too).

Most of you probably don't remember videotex (my history includes designing the British Library's Prestel database), but again the episode on Prestel,  and the more successful French Minitel videotex service, demonstrate one step on the path to online for everyone (it was text on your TV! you could go through a load of menus to try and find the information you wanted (no searching)!)

There are many, many more topics covered including gaming, use of technology at work, women and IT, and educational software.

**I note that the description mis-names the library as the "British Museum Library" which was a common problem in those days, when the British Library was less than 10 years old.

Photo by secretlondon123 "analogue modem", downloaded from Flickr at made available under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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