Mac and the Micro - memories of Ian McNaught-Davis
- 21 February 2014
- From the section Technology
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.
"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."
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.