While we’re in a 1980’s mood, this week I noticed that a remarkable project from the period had been rescued from potential oblivion and saved for the nation. Way back in 1986, when I was generally being a teenage geek and getting into unfashionable progressive rock, the BBC had the wonderful idea of creating a new version of the Domesday Book, compiled using their flagship BBC micro computers so prevalent in schools at the time. Contributors, such as educational establishments, community groups and other interested parties were encouraged to go into the community and record a snapshot of everyday life, with photos, data and short, snappy illustrative stories. With special software, collaborators compiled material from their locality – divided into four by 3km rectangles called D-blocks. These consisted of three photos, taken on film and scanned centrally, 20 written pieces and some numerical data. All of this material was collated and formed one of the first, most innovative multimedia projects of computing history. This was mind-blowing.
The completed project ran, astoundingly, on a BBC Micro Master computer, equipped with some serious extra hardware. A SCSI interface, ‘co-processor’ and 12 inch laser disc drive. The data itself came on two twelve inch discs the same size as a vinyl record of the day, but looking like a double sided CD, a technology at the time not yet mass market itself. The hardware was well engineered, but prone to being temperamental. I only ever saw one once. Such was the cost, it was prohibitively expensive for authorities and libraries – the target audience – to purchase. The multimedia experience of scrolling, scanned OS maps on a computer screen was so shocking to this young nerd that I dreamed of it for years afterwards. I needed then, and still do, to get out more.
Wikipedia has this to say about the content of the project:
The project was stored on adapted laserdiscs in the LaserVision Read Only Memory (LV-ROM) format, which contained not only analogue video and still pictures, but also digital data, with 300 MB of storage space on each side of the disc. Data and images were selected and collated by the BBC Domesday project based in Bilton House in West Ealing. Pre-mastering of data was carried out on a VAX-11/750 mini-computer, assisted by a network of BBC micros. The discs were mastered, produced, and tested by Philips at their Eindhoven headquarters factory.
That was heavy firepower in those days. Further…
The project was split over two laserdiscs:
The Community Disc contained personal reflections on life in Britain and is navigated on a geographic map of Britain. The entire country was divided into blocks that were 4 km wide by 3 km long, based on Ordnance Survey grid references. Each block could contain up to 3 photographs and a number of short reflections on life in that area. Most, but not all, of the blocks are covered in this way. In addition more detailed maps of key urban areas and blocks of 40×30 km and regional views were captured, allowing “zoom-out” and “zoom-in” functions. The community disc was double sided, with a “Southern” and a “Northern” side, although country-wide data at the 40x30km level and above was on both sides.
The National Disc contained more varied material, including data from the 1981 census, sets of professional photographs and virtual reality-like walkarounds shot for the project. Side 2 of the National disc contained video material. The material was stored in a hierarchy and some of it could be browsed by walking around a virtual art gallery, clicking on the pictures on the wall, or walking through doors in the gallery to enter the VR walkarounds. In addition a natural language search was provided via an English stemming and matching algorithm to a set of keywords.
I implore you to stop and think about this a while. This was 1986. Video recorders were not yet ubiquitous, and certainly expensive. IBM and Microsoft had yet to dominate the PC market. People who ‘did’ computers usually worked on small, incompatible machines with little storage, 16 colours and little audio. Peripherals like printers, scanners and disc drives were beyond most price ranges and were very, very basic.
The BBC, a publicly funded body, had brought stuff to the computing arena like interactive, high resolution full-colour images, point and click interfaces, video and browsing that were hitherto the preserve of research labs. Ahead of the game, much? This cannot be understated. Stuff we just started to get on PC’s in 1995 with Windows 95 – Encarta, Grolier and a host of dull multimedia cash ins – were nine – yes, nine – years behind a trail blazed by a bunch of wonky BBC geeks operating in a broom cupboard.
I was the wrong age to be involved in this landmark project. I saw it going on, I was aware of it. I lusted after it after seeing it at a computer fair – Computek? – at Walsall Town Hall in 1987. I knew this was the future, with no uncertainty. I dreamed of maps on my computer, I dreamed of technologies not yet available to mortals like me – GPS, handheld computing. Now I live it. I, like others of my generation, have witnessed the data revolution, and most of us haven’t even noticed. That fills me with sadness.
I want to drag the unsuspecting out of their slumbers, point to my mobile phone and shout ‘See this? I’m sat on the bus. It rings. How the fuck does it do that? Could you have even imagined that in 1986?’. Not only that, it holds my music. It gives me directions. I’ve got the internet. In the middle of nowhere. If somebody had shown me an iPhone in 1986, my tiny head would have exploded. A handheld GPS or Wikipedia would have probably been fatal. I am totally unable to convey in words just how this project made the teenage me feel – I’d seen the future, and anything was possible. The love affair continues to this day.
So, what of the content, and why do I bring this up now? The BBC and a whole bunch of interested parties have been concerned for a while, that as the last of this formerly cutting edge hardware dies, the data, and the whole Domesday project will be lost forever. Rightly, whilst facing a whole shedload of challenges, many of them legal – the heroes of the restoration stayed undaunted, and last week, a huge amount of the project was published online.
This, I confess, has gone on completely below my radar, but I’m just so glad. Go browse it now – yeah, it seems tame, limited. But back in the day this was wide open, expansive. It’s a segment – a very comprehesive segment – of life in a country where technology was just about to change everything forever. All the norms we accepted then were about to be upturned. The Cold War was just about to end. Politics was becoming publicity, rather than intellectually driven. Education was improving. Little did we know or suspect. It was like Midwich or Belbury. So normal, but something major was just insinuating itself into our lives.
On Saturday 22nd June 1985, my school, St Bernadette's, entered a float in Brownhills Carnival. It's theme was 'Alice in Wonderland'. The weather was reasonable, although it rained slightly at times. Our characters included Alice, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, her Footmen and the royal party, the Caterpillar, the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, a rose and the playing cards, as well as Lewis Carroll. We sang for the Mayor and Mayoress, the Carnival Queen and her attendants. We then paraded through the streets and collected donations for the Brownhills Round Table charities in the cups and bowls from the Mad Hatters tea party table. We won first prize for which we were given a red rosette and £50 for school fund.
Have you seen the bbc doomsday entry’s for Brownhills? There is an article on the Brownhills carnival and I remember being on the Alice in Wonderland float mentioned.
I will return to the revived Domesday Project and it’s content in future posts. Reading it again has raised more questions than answers, and I’m sure readers have recollections of their own. Please do explore, comment and join in. I’m after particularly the recollections of people involved or mentioned in the articles, but any associated stuff is fantastic.
It’s not often I’m so enthusiastic about something, but if ever there was proof of what a great organisation the BBC is, this is it. That, and the Radiophonic Workshop….