Mac and the Micro - memories of Ian McNaught-Davis

Ian McNaught Davis

How do you make the subject of computing accessible to a wide audience?

A very topical question, with arguments raging about the Year of Code. But maybe we need to go back and look at the work of a man who was a brilliant communicator about computers, without ever talking down to his audience.

I'm talking about Ian McNaught-Davis, the computing expert, broadcaster, and mountaineer whose death was announced this week. For many who first got to grips with computers in the 1980s it was the BBC's The Computer Programme which was the inspiration.

McNaught-Davis, or "Mac", as he was known, was the co-presenter of the programme which was part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project. At its heart was the specially commissioned BBC Micro, one of the most successful and influential computers Britain has produced.

Week by week, Mac and fellow presenter Chris Serle took viewers through the basics of computing, presenting more and more complex topics in an entertaining and accessible manner. It is hard to remember now, but in 1982 a computer was for many a large, expensive and frightening machine kept in a laboratory, and only to be approached by someone wearing a white coat.

So The Computer Programme and the BBC Micro arrived at the dawn of the personal computing era. They helped create a generation of bedroom programmers who went on to work in the IT industry - and some of them have been in touch with me this week via Twitter to express their gratitude to Ian McNaught-Davis.

The Computer Programme, with Ian McNaught-Davis and Chris Serle (left)

"He gave a generation of fledging programmers a credible programme and voice at a time when video games were the main headline. No exaggeration to say he was instrumental in me studying a computer science degree, working start-ups and now to teaching kids," says Dan Bridge.

Russell Davis tweets, "Although i'd been into computers before it was prog & Mac... that got me into it as a career & also into the hacker culture."

Start Quote

He did have this extraordinary gift for putting dense material into easily understood terms”

End Quote Chris Serle

And David Clifford writes to me at length to express his gratitude to The Computer Programme and its star. He tells me he was a "spotty geeky teenager" in the 1980s, but one who was delighted at last to find some television aimed at him.

"There was this guy with funny hair and big glasses talking about stuff that I liked, information that was targeted at me, on topics that interested me and subjects I was learning about and could understand. This was unusual in the days when there were only three channels on TV and most of the output was directed at others - sport, variety, drama etc. Here was something for me and Ian McNaught-Davis will always be that man who brought it to me."

But it is to McNaught-Davis's co-presenter that I turn for an intimate portrait of the man. "He had immense charm and bonhomie," says Chris Serle, recalling their first meeting. "A big bloke, and a great big grin and an embracing smile all over his face. You just knew immediately you were going to be in comfortable company.

Mac, he explained, learned his broadcasting skills as a mountaineer: "What made him ideal for this work was that he had done pioneering work as an outside broadcast commentator on his climbs."

His career in computing had included working for a US firm selling space on mainframe computers. "But even he was fishing around when it came to this new phenomenon which had been brought about by the invention of the microchip and the discovery that you could make computers much smaller, you could get a whole computer on a desk."

Chris Serle admits that he himself was "in the enviable position of knowing absolutely nothing" and so was entitled to ask "all the stupid questions on behalf of our audience". Then Mac would work his magic:

"He did have this extraordinary gift for putting dense material into easily understood terms. He could always find a little analogy or twist of language to make you understand things that in those days were completely alien to people... Nobody knew about inputs and outputs, and binary code. This was all amazingly radically new."

Nowadays, of course, most of us are carrying tiny computers with many times the processing power of the BBC Micro - they are called smartphones. But do we have any better understanding of computing than the audiences who switched on to watch Ian McNaught-Davis in the 1980s? I somehow doubt it.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I remember watching this programme. My friend had the Acorn Atom I had the Microtan 65. I always envied my friend though I never let on.

    That was in the day when the BBC was pioneering, now its just a vidious lefty mouthpiece.

    Compare that programme to the very dismal mind-numbing CLICK and you can see how low the BBC has sunk

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Really nice tribute article on Ian McNaught-Davis.
    I didn't know who this gent was, but I do now - thanks to you!
    God knows McNaught-Davis earned every word of your praise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I consider myself really lucky to have been an 'O' level computer studies student back in the seventies. We learned to 'code' in BASIC and MINI, coupling a mechanical teletype and MoDem to the Treasury computer in Newcastle, saving work on punch tape, and sending optical mark 'punch' cards away in bundles on a weekly basis. Ian was the sort of guy we need to be teaching real computing today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Schools need more people like McNaught-Davis who understood & could teach computer science. The problem in schools today is to much emphasis on teaching Microsoft Word Excel and Powerpoint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed Goodbye Mac, you will be missed

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    "My late mother introduced computing to her school where she was head of the maths department with a' giant' IBM desktop machine in the late/mid 60s"

    I worked for IBM for 30+ years, and I do not recall such a computer in that era.

    I recall the 360 Series Mainframes, all water cooled, none of which could have fitted on anything smaller than a banqueting table!

    I'm intrigued.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Sad to hear of the passing of Ian McNaught-Davis. My Dad used to watch The Computer Programme and Micro Live "back in the day"; sometimes I'd watch too, although I was pretty young at the time. However, that, and my Dad's fascinating partwork sets of "The Home Computer Course", were hugely important in shaping my view of computers and lead to my career in IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    #8: Gary Partis? Oh man, the hours I wasted playing Psycastria...

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Loved watching these shows and when they did the Amiga review i rushed to buy one.It was these programs that made me go into IT and work for myself never looked back love these times and the show, only got a BBC micro b later as it was rich mans toy then.Sadly missed RIP Ian McNaught-Davis.
    \where are Fred Harris and Lesley Judd these days as they come into BBC micro live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    10 Print "Goodbye Mac, you will be missed.";
    20 Goto 10

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    23. John_from_Hendon
    My late mother introduced computing to her school where she was head of the maths department with a' giant' IBM desktop machine ....

    But such a computer wasn't accessible by thousands of kids, you can't teach computing without access to a computer and splitting class time for many kids on one computer isn't going to teach or inspire anything?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    BBC Micro was AFAIK about the 4th computer I owned:-) After a Powertran Cortex [never completed]. A Feranti Advance 86, then a Sinclair QL.. Used for online gaming a wee bit of programming, then came a 2nd hand BBC micro, also used for online gaming on Prestels MicroNet. Pity BT binned it and shoved subscribers onto a foreign network. But IM-D was inspirational, even to a 30year old [back then].

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    RIP Mac, another familiar face from my past gone. I watched his show when I was still at school. Didn't quite understand it but was fascinated nonetheless. Mac had a great presentation style - friendly and knowledgeable but never patronising. Presenters lie Mac are too rare these days where being flashy or false seem to be requisites for getting on screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    #23, #28
    Yes, there was computing in schools before the BBC Micro. Some praiseworthy, pioneering, small scale, isolated, unco-ordinated, best-efforts computing. No-one's trying to contradict that (RC-J didn't in the article). But the BBC Micro was part of a groundbreaking, co-ordinated project to get computing into schools and the mainstream. Stop trying to find an "angle".

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Simple EFFECTIVE television teaching at its best and not patronising.

    Shame that such skills seem to be in short supply today especially seeing how IT has grown but not the information on how to use it as was done then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    These shows and programming on my own computer helped me with my O'Level Computer studies more than the teacher ever did.

    Somewhere over the decades we became 'users' and stopped teaching BASIC and electronics to Secondary school children. The curriculum changed and missed a basic need to understand HOW technology works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Remember these days well, the BBC model B might not have been the first in schools, but it became the mainstream and a lot cheaper. It introduced the majority of us to programming and projects/equipment, sadly lacking in schools these days that rely on teaching Microsoft Office. Glad programming may be back in the education system soon. We learned more programming ourselves in those days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    My school did not have a computer so I built my own. In the last six months I was there doing A Levels they purchased an RM 380Z. Not a BBC Micro in sight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I acted for Ian in a software copyright case for Mac where he and associate were not being paid by the US company that had licensed the software from him - because the US company was unhappy at having to pay them such large sums which were due under the agreement. He was extraordinarily nice to work for and we had great delight in winning hands down with the US company sacking their barrister

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #23: "It really is awful of the BBC to be unable to understand that there was schools computing before the BBC micro. Please stop re-writing history!"

    Well said. Apple IIe, Commodore Pet, RM 380Z all existed and were in use within schools before the BBC Micro appeared (and all of them offered better capabilities for budding programmers).


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