I suppose that I have always been interested in technology and I guess that part of that, was me being a child of the 1950s and 60s. This was a time when science was going to solve all our problems. Science arrived in our lives with motor cars, televisions, transistor radios, fridges, central heating, fluorescent lights, electric fires and kettles. Of course, I wasn’t aware how different this period was to what had gone before, as it was the only one that I experienced.
For the children of this time, television made such a difference. Things that we could only read about in comics and books were now available and the world opened up. Desmond Morris took us into a world of animals, Alan Whicker shared the world of the rich and privileged and Tomorrow’s World showed us how our lives might possibly change.
Technology also impinged on the lives of workers and bit by bit the trades, occupations and industries that were the backbone of British lives and prosperity began to lose their importance. Some of the changes were unfortunate and now widely recognised as mistakes. The trams in Leeds disappeared and little remains of their complex network and the cities that retained theirs now see the benefit. We used to laugh at cheap shoddy goods made in Hong Kong, but now the vast majority of hi-tech goods are made in Asian countries, even if their designs and the companies themselves are USA or UK based.
Of course, change has always been a feature of human lives, but the pace of the change after the Second World War was almost unprecedented. The steam age gave way to the diesel age and then the electric age and the atomic age. We are now in the throes of seeing the end of the fossil fuel age and I hope to buy at least one fully electric car before I leave the planet for good.
Now, I am not going to be critical and harp back to some golden age, because I do not feel that that is true. I was fortunate to be born when change and understanding was coming into medicine. The pandemics of the past were major. Apparently, the Spanish influenza killed more people than the First World War and without current medical advancements, how much worse would the current one be? When I was a child we were subjected to the new treatments to prevent rather than cure illnesses. Vaccinations for Polio, Measles, Mumps, German Measles, Whooping Cough, Tetanus and others started at this time and antibiotics were seen as the salvation for child mortality. And so it proved to be. Life expectancy had grown and hopefully will continue to do so. Conditions that might have proved fatal can now be treated and cured. So good were these introductions that we have become blasé and complacent. I have been very, very lucky and had less than six sick days in my working life, and one of those was a sicko (an Australian term for taking a day off when you are not ill) to attend a meeting just before we migrated, and I place my good luck at the feet of the medical profession. Too many young people don’t understand how dangerous and common Measles, Polio and the other diseases were, and too many listen to ‘influencers’ with no other qualifications than strong opinions. Of course, it has always been so. Ignorance has led to witches being burnt at the stake due to the angry mob.
Certainly there have been mistakes: DDT, atomic bombs and energy, Thalidomide, some plastics, the throw away and disposable items, CFCs and global climate change to name a few. But there have also been great advances: communication to distant relatives and friends, cleaner air, dry, warm houses, better working conditions and safety, better, and more plentiful food. The world has shrunk during our lifetimes. International travel ceased to be only for the privileged few, but became the expectation of everyone. As I spoke about last week, I didn’t go overseas until I was in my twenties, and I didn’t fly until I was in my thirties. That wasn’t unusual, but in my last few teaching years there wouldn’t have been one child in the primary school who hadn’t flown many times. Here in Australia, that has come to a halt this last year, but hopefully not for too much longer.
The future, in the late fifties and sixties, was the province of science fiction and it was the very modern television that opened it up to everyone. Quatermass, Dr Who, The Outer Limits, Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone, Fireball XL5, The Jetsons, My Favourite Martian, Lost in Space, Thunderbirds, Supercar, Blake’s Seven and Star Trek became compulsive viewing, and despite now seeming so corny and badly made, they made me want to live in this wonderful future world.
My memory let me down when I was trying to remember when technology came into schools. I thought it was when I was still at Harehills County Primary School, but when I have checked it was much later. Of course, at Roundhay School we used Log Tables and sliderules, but towards the start of the early seventies these started to be replaced by calculators. At a similar time, I remember a school friend bringing into school a digital watch. His father was a floor manager at a large department store and a salesman had given him one or two models to try out, with the intention of getting them stocked. We were amazed. Around this time, another friend had been in a TV department in Leeds and seen Ceefax on display. Now Ceefax was the first teletext service. It was originally planned for providing sub-titles for the deaf, but became widely used for the weather, programme guides. These introductions just seemed so cool for teenagers and were the shape of things to come. Even better was the game Ping Pong. This appeared in 1972, when I was in the Sixth Form and it was what every teenager wanted, and probably every father and child. The console turned your TV into a game machine where two paddles batted a blip across the screen and the purpose was to return the blip so that your playing partner missed it. The graphics were the most basic, but everyone wanted to play and it swept the world for a short time, until in 1978, when the Japanese company Taito released Space Invaders. Now this was a monster leap forward. The graphics were a step up, were in colour and the single player had to shoot down horizontally passing space invaders. The invader sped up as the game progressed and they shot at you. You had to avoid being shot and kill as many invaders as possible. It worked in levels and each level got harder. At the end of the game you got a score and the highest score was recorded and everyone wanted to beat it. This game proved addictive and my son recently bought a version of what was originally an arcade and then a home game.
Up to this point, computers meant large machines that filled rooms. They worked using tickertape and punch cards and their purpose was unknown to most people, but then in the early 1980s I was working in a school where a teacher had a Sinclair ZX 80 personal computer and then appeared the Sinclair Spectrum with a spectacular 16k of ram. This was mind blowing stuff and within a short time there was the release of the BBC Micro computer, shortly followed by the Acorn. Male teachers in particular enthused over them and a whole new area of education, with a secret language only known by the initiated, was introduced. I had to have one and I got the Acorn which I think had 32 k or RAM. I used a TV as a monitor, loaded programmes through a cassette player and started an evening course in computing.
I loved it, but my wife was less keen. She was not happy with me disappearing into the spare room for hours whilst she had our son to deal with. I think the real game-changer was when we had a birthday party for number one son and I spent the whole time with a friend playing on the computer whilst she struggled with a horde of children, some of whom were coming to blows!
I learnt simple programming in Basic, but found I spent more time playing games. Cylon Attack was my favourite. It came out in 1982, was a big step up from Space Invaders and it took nearly forty minutes to load from cassette. You could buy books of computer programmes and games which required you to type in the programming and then save it. It took hours and any mistake meant searching through to find the incorrect digit.
In schools at this time, the Choose Your Own Adventure type books became very popular after their release in the 1970s and they became the basis for a new type of simulation game on the early computers. There were no graphics, but it produced a written scenario and you had to choose a course of action. Fantastic stuff!
Something happened then, probably the going to Papua New Guinea to work, but I lost my desire to play games. Funnily, the school in the Highlands of PNG had two quite advanced Apple 2C computers and the kids loved to play on them. There were games such as ‘Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego?’, which had some educational merit; my son developed his love of computer games there. Now, computer game production has a much larger turnover than Hollywood movies and it isn’t just the realm of school kids and teenagers. It is big business and allows some players to become professional and earn large amounts. It has come a long way from Space Invaders and Pac Man. The desire to have the most up to date console has become a real marketer’s dream, as the global shortage of the Playstation 5 has demonstrated.
Computers are now in our cars, cookers, washing machines, our pockets and many places that we don’t even know. I have a robot vacuum cleaner that wanders around the house and never complains, and my car has a cruise control that is almost an auto-pilot. My television listens to us and can make suggestions and adverts are chosen on my phone, I pad, personal computer and a myriad of other devices, by artificial intelligence. Has it all been good? Absolutely not, but there have been some wonderful things. I can check and find out any information on the most obscure question with a couple of clicks. I can do crosswords with relatives, face to face on the internet, on the other side of the world. I can see my grandchildren on-line, despite not having seen them for two years due to restrictions in travel. I can record music in a way that the Beatles couldn’t have dreamed of, and I am learning new skills every day. The Jetsons? Not quite, but we are getting there and hopefully the benefits can be shared more equitably.