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
    0

    Comment number 227.

    226. No_Main_Party_Vote
    >>>Is this more free advertising by Rory Cellan-Jones.
    >>>How much does apple pay you to write these articles?

    No, actually not - Rory is (as in fact most people working in the bubble are) an arch Apple fan-boy, but not here. Here he is talking about Ian McNaught-Davis and Apple not mentioned. BBC Micro was an Acorn product (later of the ARM fame) - no connection.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 226.

    Is this more free advertising by Rory Cellan-Jones.


    How much does apple pay you to write these articles?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 225.

    Probably a good guy, but I preferred Commodore machines at the time, they were way ahead of the clunky BBC.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 224.

    10 REM MY PROGRAM
    20 FOR I=1 TO 10
    30 PRINT "8-BIT COMPUTERS ROCK"
    40 NEXT I
    50 END

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 223.

    I managed to avoid anything to do with BBC computing and went from an old IBM at work onto an Atari ST with its gem desktop and started using it for music.

    I think it was learning some hated basic programming at college in the late 70s that did it - I decided then and there that I would avoid the wretched things till they grew up and became as easy to use as a telephone.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 222.

    Learned more that I use in my day-to-day work as a scientist from programming those old 8-bit machines in the early 80s than I have from anything else in my education. I had and Acorn Atom - the one before the BBC. I've still got it. I loved that programme.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 221.

    214. Shaunie Babes

    Indian Labour is not always cheap ... one developer I know who recruited from India .. found that the worked being contracted for .. was not being done ... and when the deadline came close, that Indian labour went up by 100% to get the work done on time.

    It is shocking how poor a logical thinking the average UK student is .. even those with A*AA at A-level... ones I teach.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 220.

    I remember with great fondness the launch of the BBC micro and the associated series with Chris Searle and Ian MacD. Though I had the Atari 800, the advice was still very relevant and I learnt a lot at that time which enabled me to get into IT and remain in it for 25 years. The comments about the lack of relevance to today's computing are themselves very wide of the mark.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 219.

    I remember BBC Micro Live on Sunday mornings with Chris Searle and Lesley Judd

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 218.

    Probably the last of the Reithian influence when the BBC still felt a duty to inform as well as entertain.

    So in the not too distant past we had knowledgeable, likable, educational and instructive presenters like Mr McNaught Davis.

    Now we have Russell Brand

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 217.

    Tried djing,second hand cars selling, now a programmer. Got a remote control and everything.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 216.

    215 cont
    I really can not see the point of "Year of Code" in the present automation climate.
    example - a hundred thousand children learn the basics of mechanics and how to fix an automobile. When it comes to the real world they find that it is very expensive, needing a computer to interrogate the vehicle and that it is almost a closed shop practice.

    Even teaching has been automated; will improve?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 215.

    Long gone are the days of programming a computer by a one person band, by hand. (exception the one person business who refuses to go without a fight).

    A modern game takes as much to make as a full length feature film in personnel, equipment and money.

    Computers are on the virge of self programming and self correcting errors.
    Not just novelty, the Raspberry Pi is a hub into huge computing world.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 214.

    160. Frowny Face

    Average IT teacher earns £25k a year.

    Average software developer earns £35-40k a year.

    If you knew all about programming, would you stomach a 10k pay cut?
    ---
    In reality employers advertise the job for £10k and when no one applies use this as an excuse to hire cheap Indian labour.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 213.

    I agree with Eurlng - the BBC should have got behind the Raspberry Pi project. The BBC BASIC literacy project along with the BBC Micro (and lets not forget the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum!) inspired a whole generation of children from the UK to become programmers. BBC BASIC is still out there and being developed - get it on your Raspberry PI or on your PC and lets get the UK coding again.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 212.

    Teaching IT nowadays is about a lot more than teaching someone how to code. The first pcs were stand-alone machines and the internet came along much later. It was a much simpler world then without the multitude of languages in use. Now by the time you've taught the kids to use one language, it's evolved into something quite different!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 211.

    I discovered computers (PDP-11 & PET) in the late 70s while doing a biology degree. After graduating, I jumped ship bought myself an Apple II and got a job as a trainee programmer. I was interviewed by Herman Hauser at Acorn for a job on the BBC computer development team, but he never did get back to me! Never mind though, I managed to muddle on and retire at 50, thanks to Microsystems.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 210.

    160. Frowny Face

    Average IT teacher earns £25k a year.

    Average software developer earns £35-40k a year.

    If you knew all about programming, would you stomach a 10k pay cut?
    ***

    There is an old saying:

    Those you can, do
    Those who can't, teach
    Those who can't teach, inspect.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 209.

    The programmes weren't all that great in reality, but Mac was a likeable chap and Searle fitted the useful idiot role.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 208.

    Ian Mc Naught-Davies inspired people to write computer programmes, build and apply computer hardware. A great man and a good start for the UK. The BBC is there to Inform and educate as well as to entertain. Why didn't the BBC get behind the Raspberry Pi when it was approached? He was part of a group employed just to do this. Lets see the BBC do this again. Inspire Tech. creation & learning.

 

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