It’s hard to think of a time when it wasn’t American giants like Apple and Microsoft ruling Silicon Valley. But back in the 1980s, British computing companies like Amstrad, Sinclair and Oric led the charge in home computing.
Now, in a new book titled Electronic Dreams, author Tom Lean, a historian of science at the British Library, argues that some of those working at the beginning of home computers may have been even further ahead of the curve than giving Manic Miner and rubber keypads to British homes.
Lean argues that, with their Prestel network, the Post Office had essentially invented the modern day World Wide Web as early as the 1970s, but they were so far ahead of their time that few others got it.
“I’m amazed more people don’t know about how capable Prestel was”
“I’m amazed more people don’t know about it,” Lean tells Loaded. “Before doing the research for the book I was aware of Prestel, but I didn’t realise how capable it had been.
“It’s one of those British stories about innovation happening in back rooms,” he continues. “The Post Office dreamt something up that’s a lot like the World Wide Web towards the end of the 1970s, but they couldn’t convince anybody to use it.
“People were only just getting used to having computers on their desks at home as individual machines. So the idea that they’re all going to be linked up to each other was a bit too much for them at the time. It’s a fascinating story of technological failure.”
Originally, the Prestel network, which was commercially launched in 1979, was like a more functional teletext service. Subscribers could receive information from a database held on a central computer via a telephone line.
It was developed at the Post Office Research Station in Martlesham, Suffolk, and businesses could pay for space on the database to transmit information to users – much like a primitive web page. Subscribers could also transmit instant messages to each other’s mailboxes, with Prestel’s Mailbox being one of the first commercially available email services.
“We think about things like online shopping and banking as 21st Century tech, but they were in the British home by about 1984”
“During the early 1980s, when they still hadn’t quite managed to sell the concept, they started looking for new uses for it,” explains Lean. “They developed things like shopping and internet banking, as well as being able to use it to do things like talk to friends and read the news.
“We think about these things as 21st Century technology, but they were all in place to be in the British home by about 1984. It’s absolutely remarkable that it didn’t go anywhere.”
At the peak of its success Prestel had just 90,000 subscribers, despite the fact that its technology prefaced what millions of people would come to use across the world on a daily basis just two decades later. And the story is emblematic of a world still struggling to accept the prominence of the computer’s place in modern life.
“The 80s is a fascinating period for computing,” says Lean. “That moment of first contact between millions of people and computers. And when they stopped being a big scary machine used by big businesses, and became a domestic appliance.
“At the start of the decade the computer was a really strange, mysterious being. Positively science fiction. But within a few years it was an everyday technology.
“That shift is never going to happen again. Even the things we’re going through today are nowhere near as exciting as that moment of first contact. They’re just echoes of that big bang like change.”
Prestel was also responsible for the first big hacking story in Great Britain, when Prince Phillip’s email was compromised back in 1984. And Lean stresses that’s something that continues to have an impact on our daily life today.
“When I log into my work computer today I’m confronted with the Computer Misuse Act (1990). That goes back to Prince Phillip being hacked through Prestel,” Lean says.
“The computer revolution is something that we’re still living through now. Great change was predicted; it’s just taken a lot longer to get there than we first thought.”
Had that been quicker, it seems the Post Office may have been a bigger part in the history of computers than it’s currently given credit for, and possibly the subject of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay long before The Social Network and Steve Jobs.
Electronic Dreams is available now through Bloomsbury here.
Loaded reporter Robert McCallum has written for many leading culture magazines and websites about music, sport, science, politics, fashion and arts. Follow Robert at @therobmccallum