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
    +2

    Comment number 87.

    @85

    You could write "real code" on any of those machines as well. I had an ELF II back in the day. Had a BBC Micro at university in my room.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 86.

    shame he did not trade mark his name

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 85.

    76.Jaster
    ...Most of us were brought up on Spectrum's, Vic 20's, C64's, ... were more successful...
    The cheaper computers you name were more popular for games packages. In some ways the BBC micro was too advanced for that. It was a favoured home computer among professionals: they could make use of the BBC Basic procedure and function commands, the *FX calls and embedded assembler. Real code!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 84.

    @82

    Yeah - you are probably correct. But I guess he hasn't heard of the internet where there are plenty of such programmes for the novice.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 83.

    Ian's calm, enthusiastic voice, as well as all the other presenters will always be in my memories. The only thing on the TV that I watched back then, other than Tomorrow's World.
    A computer programme like that wouldn't be made now, as everything has to have common appeal and high ratings, for some unfathomable reason.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 82.

    @78

    I think Ironman is referring to the actual show that Mac presented, not the BBC Micro.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 81.

    The original series ran to 10 episodes, as did its successor 'making the most of the micro' , there then followed 3 series of 'micro live'.
    Meanwhile 'Eastenders' has been running for nearly 30 years.
    'Educate, inform & entertain'. Where did it all go wrong BBC?

  • rate this
    +20

    Comment number 80.

    72. African Pele
    A clever man but he didn't exactly invent the I-Phone did he

    Nice to see that yours is just about the only disrespectful comment I've come across about this pioneer who might well have invented the I-phone had he been born 20 or 30 years later. Didn't you have something similarly scathing to say about the great Tom Finney on last weekend's HYS on his passing?

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 79.

    A great presenter making an esoteric subject accessible and enjoyable.

    Acorn, Sinclair and Ian helped to bring Britain to the global forefront of Home Computing. His legacy is in influencing thousands of us to pursue rewarding careers in IT.

    Sadly Governments' dumbing down of school IT culminated in Lottie-Dottie-Ditzy Dexter's ignorant proclamations. We need more "television heroes" like Mac!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 78.

    @73

    If you have a career in the computing industry then you must not read much about computers if you think their are no equivalents to the BBC Micro around today.

    Raspberry Pi????

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 77.

    Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to learn computer skills at school by a few years. The only computer in the school was a Mac and it was under lock and key in the headmasters office.

    A quick search for "the computer programme" on YouTube produces a great list of episodes if anyone fancies a nostalgic trip down computer lane.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 76.

    Mac was a legend. The BBC Micro was neither influential or successful though. I think out of all the micro's available at the time it was over priced and sold to middle class families as an "Educational" tool. Most of us were brought up on Spectrum's, Vic 20's, C64's, I think even the CPC 464 and the Dragon 32 were more successful then the BBC Micro.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 75.

    A programme way ahead of its time. A did computing as part of an engineering degree in the 1980's using FORTRAN & COBOL on a mainframe linked to a teleprinter but seeing a small desktop programmable computer doing same thing was an eye-opener.

    Writing

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 74.

    It’s a shame that even with this inspiration, major IT projects in the 90’s and most of the 00’s have turned out to be pretty shambolic in the UK, especially when the government has been involved.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 73.

    Sorry to hear of Mac's passing, the BBC were fundamental in galvanising my interest and my parents supporting me in computing and my getting a BBC Model B and career in the computing industry. Mac and the BBC brought computers into the homes of many in the UK. I wish there was something like this again.

  • Comment number 72.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    -14

    Comment number 71.

    10 Run
    20 Print "hello world"
    30 Goto 10

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 70.

    I have fond memories of this programme and the presenters. I bought a BBC 'B' Mirco and took it into school before the school itself got one. Great to see the recent return to this approach to computers with the Raspberry Pi - wish that could have been badged with the BBC Logo and a new TV Series brought out based around it.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 69.

    "in 1982 a computer was for many a large, expensive and frightening machine"
    It still is- so no change there, then.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 68.

    We really need the BBC now to wade into the computer programming arena now and give the likes of the Raspberry Pi Foundation a hand. Their influence on a generation of programmers in this country (like myself) back in the late 1970s and early 1980s was immense.

 

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