From Not So Tiny Acorns

By Hugo Rifkind

Originally published in EUG #66

We remember the date so clearly when we last saw the Acorn Electron mentioned in a broadsheet newspaper. It was November 24th 2004. Whilst browsing through The Times, we discovered this curious article by Hugo Rifkind. We suspect it rings quite a few bells with all of you.

Our first family computer turned up one Christmas, when I was seven. It was an Acorn Electron, the colour of rancid butter, and about as clever as a blunt pencil. We gathered around it in awe. It just sat there, going " " at us. Eventually we wired in the tape deck, started loading a game, made a cup of tea, had dinner, took a two-week holiday in Provence, came back and spent half an hour helping a frog jump across a road. That was the best the machine could offer ó which was when the adults went to look at next doorís SodaStream instead.

It was a tetchy beast, the Acorn, prone to emitting a low beep and making the screen go all fuzzy if called upon to perform even the most rudimentary multi-tasking. (Being switched on and doing something, say.) Over time, my sister and I developed techniques for dealing with even the most serious system collapse. We called it "the karate chop", and eventually it broke the space bar. It did the job, mind you.

They didnít feel important, computers, when they first came into our lives. It was hard to see how they could be of much practical use. Youíd see scientists on Tomorrow's World being all smug because they'd used a ZX Spectrum to make a see-through robot the size of a dustbin draw a line in crayon on the floor.

You wondered what the fuss was about - even when they claimed that, one day, these things would be small enough to perform something called keyhole surgery, or sturdy enough to be blasted into space. It was dull, just maths.

When Charles Babbage designed the first computer in 1833, he faced similar apathy. His design was for an analytical engine that produced mathematical tables. At best, even if one accepted that this was a worthwhile thing to have created - and most did not - it still made for a pretty boring toy. It might one day give us air traffic control or a cure for cancer, but it's not the kind of thing that most of us can get excited about. You needed porn or illegal music downloads for that - and 1834 just wasnít the time.

We probably finally stopped thinking of computers as bothersome boxes that went bing when laptops started being made in black not beige. Around 1996, or so. It took the growth of the World Wide Web to get computers properly welcomed into our homes. The striking thing about the web, of course, is how recently it appeared.

The first ever website was made available online by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in only 1991 and (aside, of course, from being a staggering manifestation of genius and selfless vision) was pretty much as dull a thing to read as it is possible to imagine.

Fast-forward a little more than a decade and we bank through the web, communicate through it, shop through it, get our news, views and travel advice from it, and generally consider it our first port of call for nearly everything. Porn and illegal music downloads included.

From an early stage, Berners-Lee was adamant that the technology behind the web would be free for all, devoid of patent or royalties. The web is about democracy of information, about having everything you could possibly want to know about everything at your fingertips. Had Berners-Lee decided otherwise, he could have made Bill Gates look like a pauper.

As it is, he changed the world. He also, provided youíve got a Palm Pilot, made it far too easy to cheat at pub quizzes. Speaking of which, I actually bought myself a new Palm just a couple of days ago. The other night, after over an hour of swearing and struggling, I succeeded in uploading a full-length episode of The Simpsons.

"That's actually pretty amazing," conceded the girlfriend, who had been wondering what all the yells and curses were about. "When we were kids, thatís the sort of thing that people said would be the future."

It was at that point, and I swear Iím not making this up, that my brand new, state-of-the-art Palm went all fuzzy and started emitting a low beep.

There was only one thing for it. I bet even Babbage and Berners-Lee used the karate chop sometimes.

Hugo Rifkind, EUG #66