Computing Britain

Episodes

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01Electronic Brains20150914

From the mobile phone to the office computer, mathematician Hannah Fry looks back at 70 years of computing history, to reveal the UK's lead role in developing the technology we use today.

In the first episode, she travels back to the 1940s, to hear the incredible story of the creation, in Britain, of the computer memory.

Three teams from across the country - in Teddington, Manchester and Cambridge - were tasked with designing automatic calculating engines for university research. But which team would be first to crack the tricky problem of machine memory?

Meanwhile, tabloid headlines proclaimed that engineers were building 'electronic brains' that could match, and maybe surpass, the human brain, starting a debate about automation and artificial intelligence that still resonates today.

Producer: Michelle Martin

Photo: Maurice Wilkes and Bill Renwick in front of the complete EDSAC

Credit: Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

02Leo The Electronic Office20150915

Hannah Fry hears the incredible story of how a chain of British teashops produced the first office computer in the world.

J Lyons and Company was the UK's largest catering company, with 250 teashops across the country. They also owned their own bakeries, a tea plantation and haulage firm.

By the 1950s, this vast business was drowning in paperwork. It embarked on an ambitious new project to build a machine called LEO - the Lyons Electronic Office.

Their office computer was based on the giant calculating machines being built inside UK universities to solve mathematical equations.

Sure, these machines could manage maths, but could they handle catering?

Producer: Michelle Martin.

03Ernie Picks Prizes20150916

'Savings with a thrill!'

In 1956, adverts enticed the British public with a brand new opportunity. Buy premium bonds for one pound, for the chance to win a thousand. At the time, it was a fortune - half the price of the average house.

Behind this tantalising dream was a machine called ERNIE - the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment.

ERNIE was built by the team who constructed Colossus, the code-breaking engine housed at Bletchley Park. They had just nine months to make a machine that generated random numbers using all the latest kit, from printed circuit boards to metal transistors.

In this episode, mathematician Hannah Fry hears how ERNIE became an unlikely celebrity and why this machine symbolised oa great change in Britain's relationship with computers.

Producer: Michelle Martin.

04Connected Thinking20150917

Long before the heroics of the world wide web, the internet was born out of a mixture of American ambition and British thrift. Packet Switching was the name coined by Welsh computer scientist Donald Davies in an effort to link the early computers in the labs of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.

Presented by Hannah Fry

Produced by Alex Mansfield.

05The Job Killer20150918

From the earliest days of electronic computers, commentators feared that mass unemployment would result from the efficiencies of computers and automation in the workplace. These fears would resurface over the decades, but came to a head towards the end of the 1970s with the coming of relatively cheap microprocessors.

Presented by Hannah Fry

Produced by Alex Mansfield.

06Computers In Class20150921

As the manufacturing industries of the 1970s became the service sector of the 1980s, the BBC tried to help democratize the coming of the affordable microchip, to help re-equip a vulnerable workforce for a digital future.

The BBC Computer Literacy Project was aimed initially at adults, but somehow ended up putting a beige BBC Microcomputer in the corner of nearly every classroom in the land.

07Computers At Home20150922

In the 1980s, 'micro computers' invaded the home. In this episode, Hannah Fry discovers how the computer was transported from the office and the classroom right into our living room.

From eccentric electronics genius Clive Sinclair and his ZX80, to smart-suited businessman Alan Sugar and the Amstrad PC, she charts the 80s computer boom - a time when the UK had more computers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Producer: Michelle Martin.

08Uk Gaming20150923

Computers in school and at home nurtured a generation of programmers who cut their teeth playing and writing computer games in the 1980s.

Hannah talks to the Oliver Twins, who won a competition on ITV's Saturday Show and went on to write best-selling computer games featuring an egg called Dizzy.

She takes a trip back to an early publishing house in Liverpool where fast cars and marketing ploys went spectacularly wrong and hears how some games created in the UK, like Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto, hit the big time.

Nowadays, an 'AAA' video game has budgets to match feature films, costing up to $250m to produce. So is there still room for the bedroom coder?

09Dotcom Bubble20150924

The city went crazy for dot com companies in 1999. But in March 2000, the boom suddenly turned into a bust. Hannah discovers that technology then wasn't up to the job.

10 LASTMobile Revolution20150925

The story of how a British company, ARM, developed tiny hyper-intelligent silicon chips that drove the smartphone revolution.

11Ominibus: 1940s To 1970s20170310

From the mobile phone to the office computer, mathematician Hannah Fry looks back at 70 years of computing history, to reveal the UK's lead role in developing the technology we use today. This omnibus edition is taken from a series first broadcast in 2015.

She travels back to the 1940s, to hear about the creation of the computer memory. Meanwhile, tabloid headlines proclaimed that engineers were building 'electronic brains' that could match, and maybe surpass, the human brain, starting a debate about artificial intelligence that resonates today.

Next - the unlikely story of how a chain of British teashops produced the first office computer in the world called LEO - the Lyons Electronic Office. Their office computer was based on the giant calculating machines being built inside UK universities to solve mathematical equations. But could they handle the demands of catering?

1956 saw the creation of the first celebrity computer, ERNIE - the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment. Built by the team who constructed Colossus, the code-breaking engine housed at Bletchley Park, ERNIE generated random numbers used to pick premium bond winners.

From the earliest days of electronic computers, commentators feared that mass unemployment would result from the computers in the workplace. These concerns would resurface over the decades, but came to a head towards the end of the 1970s with the arrival of cheap microprocessors.

Featuring archive from The Science Museum, British Library, LEO Society and NS&I.

Presenter: Hannah Fry

Producer: Michelle Martin.

12Omnibus: 1980s Onwards20170317

In the 80s, computers came to school. The BBC Computer Literacy Project was aimed initially at adults, but somehow ended up putting a beige BBC Microcomputer in the corner of nearly every classroom in the land.

Meanwhile, 'micro computers' invaded the home. From eccentric electronics genius Clive Sinclair and his ZX80, to smart-suited businessman Alan Sugar and the Amstrad PC, Hannah revisits the 80s computer boom, a time when the UK had more computers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Powering this trend was the rise of computer games, often written by teenage coders in their bedrooms. Hannah talks to the Oliver Twins, who created chart-topping titles such as Dizzy, based on the adventures of a lovable egg. Nowadays, bestselling video games have budgets akin to feature films, costing up to £200m to produce. Could today's bedroom coders still write a Number 1 hit?

In the late 1990s, the City went crazy for dot com companies. But in March 2000, the boom went bust. Hannah asks why the dot com bubble burst.

Finally, the story of the little known company in Cambridge that designs and builds the ARM chip, found in almost every mobile device in the world, and the impact it has had in powering the digital age. It also powers the BBC Micro:bit, designed to encourage young people to code, just as the BBC Micro computer did three decades ago.

Featuring archive from The Science Museum, British Library and BBC TV.

Presenter: Hannah Fry

Producer: Michelle Martin.