Electronic Dreams: a review

Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams. How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer
London, Bloomsbury, 2016

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books in December. As the Review’s terms of reuse are admirably free, I republish the review here.]

A character in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys observed that ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’. Contemporary historians will recognise the force of Bennett’s observation, and it is perhaps particularly apt in the history of computing. Historians and theorists of the Internet and the World Wide Web have always to reckon with the common view that these systems are as they are inevitably; that they could have come about in no other way and in no other form. In a time when the personal computing industry is to all intents and purposes divided between PCs running Microsoft software on the one hand, and the products of the Apple Corporation on the other, all popular consciousness of any pre-history to that state of affairs has been lost.

Into that gap comes Tom Lean’s study of personal computing in 1980s Britain. Based on a University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis from 2008, it is produced and priced in order to reach a readership wider than simply historians of technology. The appeal of the book will be seductive to those (like this reviewer) who learnt IT at school on a BBC Micro, and played games on a ZX Spectrum. Although it flirts occasionally with the danger, the book avoids being merely an exercise in nostalgia by the crispness of the writing, and a deft interweaving of users, technologies, makers, and the wider context of government thinking and media history.

Lean vividly evokes the very earliest stages of the development of kit computers for home assembly in the late 1970s, as innovators working in spare bedrooms provided other enthusiasts with new toys with which to experiment. The story is a British one to set alongside the more familiar founding myths of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in their garages. Striking also is the degree to which the personal computer was a tool without a use. No particular market existed for the earliest machines, apart from as a tool with which to learn about computing itself. Lean goes on to show that the uses to which these machines were put were often not those the makers had anticipated. Many were disappointed that machines that might have been put to educational or commercial use ended up used only for games, even though the games industry was to become highly significant for the British economy. But Lean shows that this very open-endedness was the most significant legacy of the time. Without a graphical user interface behind which the workings of the machine were hidden, a generation of computer scientists and engineers were able to learn the fundamentals of computing and what it might enable.

Lean’s narrative includes the development of a market, which was by and large mature by 1983, and which collapsed within a few years. In a very short space of time, market leaders had emerged – the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 – and with them a panoply of books, specialist magazines, and companies that produced software. Lean’s account is detailed on the relative technical capabilities of the several machines, including those that lost out in the race for market share, but also surefooted and informative on the wider context. There is an international element, as British machines competed in a global market, against competition from the USA and Japan in particular. For a time, British innovation was a success story which the Thatcher government was very ready to tell. 1982 was declared IT Year, and saw the appointment of the first government minister of IT, Kenneth Baker. For a moment, British entrepreneurship and innovation could be set rhetorically against the supposedly bloated and inefficient traditional industries that Mrs Thatcher had set out to reform.

Particularly intriguing is the role of the BBC. In line with its threefold role to educate, inform and entertain, the BBC had in the 1970s paid attention to the coming world of computerisation, and its likely effect on employment, to set alongside early utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The Computer Programme (1982) was part of a broader Computer Literacy Project, involving television and radio, books, a programming course using BASIC, and (most unusually), its own computer, the BBC Micro. Developed inside a week by Acorn of Cambridge, as their engineers slept under the laboratory benches, it was technically outstanding and soon secured a dominant position in schools, despite protests from other firms that to patronise one machine should not be the role of the BBC as a national broadcaster.

Historians of the Internet will find much in the section on Prestel, the system for receiving centrally held data on specially adapted televisions via a home telephone line. Launched in 1979 but more or less defunct by the early 1990s, it was administered by British Telecom, building on the previous Post Office monopoly in telephone services. Although the number of users was small, those that did adopt Prestel were using it for many tasks now common on the Web: buying tickets, finding travel information, banking. Prestel failed where the French equivalent Minitel succeeded, reaching some 9 million users at its height. That failure illustrates the haphazard and serendipitous nature of success and failure in the history of technology. While the system was technically advanced, Prestel’s charging model was wrong for the time; simple organisational inertia prevented a more widespread connection of the new home computers to the system, and it lacked the wholehearted support of government, which was forthcoming in the French case.

If the book is let down by anything, it is by some slack proofreading, as errors abound. Scholars wishing to follow up any of the matters raised will need to resort to Lean’s thesis, available via the British Library’s Ethos service, as the referencing and bibliography here are very light, perhaps as a concession to a more general readership. These cavils aside, Electronic Dreams will be essential reading for those interested in how Britain came to love the personal computer.

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?

Review of Michael Ramsey book in Theology

Another review of my Michael Ramsey book hit the streets this month, in the journal Theology. For historians who don’t know the theological literature, Theology is one of the foremost general theology periodicals, analogous perhaps to the Journal of Ecclesiastical History for church historians (see the JEH review by Jeremy Bonner).

The review is by Robin Gill, formerly Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, now professor emeritus in the same, and co-editor of the first significant set of essays assessing Ramsey’s theology, published in 1995. He is also editor of Theology.
Ramsey - cover
Readers without access to the journal will need to pay an astonishing $36 to download a copy – more than the book itself costs in paperback. So, I record some of the highlights. One of the book’s strengths is that it:

adds considerable nuance to the ‘liberal’ positions that Ramsey took on issues such as capital punishment, homosexuality, abortion, divorce and apartheid. What emerges is that Michael Ramsey, despite his other worldly holiness (and, Webster suggests fleetingly, being somewhere on the autistic spectrum), showed clearly through his personal correspondence that he was well aware of competing positions and passions. He was truly a ‘leader’ – one prepared to take a position on contentious moral issues – in a manner that few other Archbishops since William Temple have matched. Despite his critics he was arguably no pawn of the ‘liberal establishment’ of the 1960s.

My sense that Michael Ramsey may well have been autistic has been noted by more than one reviewer. There was not space to expand the thought in the book, but it is explored here.

The reviewer identifies a couple of gaps. First is the influence of the moral theologian Gordon Dunstan, whom the book does not mention. I take this point but add that the book does engage at some length with the report on divorce law reform that Dunstan helped created, Putting Asunder, and much of the thinking on moral theology more generally within the Church of England at the time.

Professor Gill also takes me to task for following too closely the argument of Callum Brown and Hugh McLeod in:

seeing the 1960s as the time of a radical shift of power/influence away from the Church of England and the decisive moment in its numerical decline. But in the process he (and especially Brown) underplays the changes and decline a century earlier that Chadwick analysed so expertly. It is all too easy to dramatize the 1960s and to ignore the traumas of the mid-nineteenth-century Church of England.

To this one would only reply that the book is about the 1960s, and so is hardly the place for an assessment of the whole secularisation story. In any case, I would stand by the argument that the 1960s were indeed a crucial tipping point, but would say that to argue so need not in itself deny the proper significance of the nineteenth century.

All in all, however, Professor Gill concludes:

Yet, despite the gaps, this is a book to relish. For all Michael Ramsey fans this is a must-buy.

This I can accept without cavil or demur. Get your copies now for Christmas.

Reviews in History on Michael Ramsey

The latest review of my book on Michael Ramsey is now in, this time in the online Reviews in History, to which I myself have frequently contributed. It is by Sam Brewitt-Taylor of Lincoln College Oxford, to whom my thanks are due for an engaged, critical and constructive review.

I am of course very pleased that the reviewer thinks that the book:
Ramsey - cover
‘is the best introduction to Michael Ramsey’s archiepiscopacy at Canterbury currently available, and should be read by everyone interested in the state of the Church of England in the 1960s. …. As a report from the archives, The Shape of the Church is highly successful. It is eminently readable, it covers a very good range of issues, and it does so using an excellent level of detail. It makes a valuable contribution to a complicated subject, and it opens up some of the Ramsey archive to a wider readership. It should certainly be included in relevant undergraduate and graduate reading lists…. a fine addition to the literature.

Brewitt-Taylor makes a number of detailed criticisms, which are (as he states) suggestions for further work in situating Ramsey in his historical context. These are all welcome, and I may well return to them in print at a later date.

Interview: doing a PhD in history

Some years ago (in 2010, I think) I gave an interview about the experience of doing a Ph.D., as part of an Institute of Historical Research project on the past and future of the history doctorate. For completeness, I make it available here.
Amongst other things, it reflects how different my Ph.D. would have been had resources such as Early English Books Online been available in 1998. The interviewer is the redoubtable Danny Millum (@ReviewsHistory)

Visualising the edited collection

A little while ago I wrote a post about the future of the edited collection of essays. In that post, I suggested that there was still a future for the edited collection of essays in the humanities, but that in order to survive, those collections would need to become more coherent.

But how might we understand and recognise coherence in a volume of this type ? That post was inspired by one particular volume in which I had a clear (if subjective) sense that the various contributors were in a continued dialogue with each other, of which the volume was a progress report.

The traditional way in which scholars acknowledge intellectual contact with another is of course the footnote. And so I thought it would be interesting to take this same particular volume, and see whether my subjective sense of this internal dialogue was borne out. It took just a few minutes to go through the volume and record as a dataset each instance where an article cited another piece of work by one of the other contributors to the volume. After some tentative first steps with Gephi I had some rough-and-ready network diagrams to illustrate the relationships.


Citations (whole volume)

A pointed arrow indicates a citation from one author to another; a thicker line represents more works being cited; and an arrow at both ends indicates that the two authors cite each other.

This first diagram shows the whole network, and immediately it is clear that all the authors here cite at least one work by one of the others, and in some cases several different works by several authors. In a later post, I shall be showing some diagrams of other collections which I think do not have the same internal dialogue.

We can also begin to see some variations between the authors in terms of the attention they are being paid by the others; and this is shown clearly if we isolate the citations of works by A (top right) and B (bottom left).

A and B

Citations of and by A and B

Authors A and B are clearly the most cited nodes in this particular network. This is explicable if we know that A is one of the two editors responsible for assembling the team of authors; and that A has also published a large number of individual articles in the field, which explains the thickness of some of the arrows, as authors cite more than one of A’s works.

In contrast, B is cited by a similar number of the other authors, but not so many of B’s works each time. This chimes with the fact that B is the eminence grise of the field, but it is their definitive monograph on the topic that is being cited.

A rather different dynamic is at work when we isolate the parts of the network that involve G. While G is a very well-established scholar, the piece in this volume is their first contribution to this particular literature. So, we can see below that while G cites several of the authors in the volume, this is not reciprocated (because, in terms of this particular field, there is nothing to cite.)

Citations of and by G


Men, masculinities and religious change

Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan (eds), Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)


I just sent off my review of this collection of essays, edited by Lucy Delap of King’s College London and Sue Morgan of the University of Chichester. When that review appears in Gender and History, readers will see that I thought it a uniformly strong collection, and left me

‘with the strong impression that masculinity is one of the most neglected analytic lenses through which the history of British religion in the twentieth century should be viewed. Religious historians have long tended to concentrate on other fault lines: between denominations within individual faiths, particularly the Christian churches; and between each of the Christian churches and the secular, however it may be defined. In more recent years, a reckoning has been made with the effects of the post-war growth of the other world faiths; but this in itself has tended to focus on the interaction of the faith of these new arrivals from the Commonwealth and the Christianity of the receiving population, and with the secular state. […] even in the very recent debates about integration and ‘community relations’, the Muslim Other has been viewed as monolithic, rather than as a collection of communities of different ethnicities, geographic origins, genders and sexualities.

Delap Morgan ‘There has of course been significant work on the ‘muscular Christianity’ of the nineteenth century, such as that by Dominic Erdozain on sport, but this analysis has rarely been carried forward into the twentieth century. And where secularisation in the twentieth century has been analysed in gender terms, such as in the seminal work of Callum Brown, it has been about women, as home-makers, educators of children, carriers of culture.

Of the eleven essays, five examine Christian themes. They are:

  • Alana Harris on the Catenian Association, a lay-led group for Roman Catholic men
  • Lucy Delap on the Church of England, and the Church of England Men’s Society in particular;
  • Sue Morgan on the Scottish writer and minister of the inter-war years, Herbert Gray;
  • Timothy W. Jones on the Church of England and homosexuality
  • Sean Brady on Protestant and Catholic masculinities in Northern Ireland

It also contains essays on Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu themes, as well as an essay from Callum G. Brown on non-religion, which is yet to properly become a unit of analysis in its own right and not simply a residual category, of absence rather than presence.

My main criticism of the volume was that some of the essays seem to document the activities of groups of religious men without fully getting to grips with those activities as intrinsically gendered in and of themselves. There was also more than one essay that lacked a clear distinction between ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘Protestant’; overlapping but distinct categories often unhelpfully elided.

Despite this, the volume is a good example of the best kind of edited collection, that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.