The BBC brings the history of computing to life

3 min read

The Computer Literacy Project was launched by the BBC in the early eighties. Running throughout the decade, it aimed to document and explore computing and programming for a generation of British people born long before the concept even emerged. The corporation even created its own personal computer, called the BBC Micro, which people could use to learn how to program.

Now, the BBC has opened up access to its entire Computer Literacy Project archive. Featuring 267 programs, 146 of which were part of the original Computer Literacy Project, it offers a valuable insight into the years when computing began to enter into the public consciousness. There are also interviews with particularly young-looking Steve Wozniak and Bill gates

Run BBC Micro software in your browser

The initiative also features old BBC Micro programs that you can run in your browser. These include BASE3, which illustrates how a database works, and ENCRY3B, which shows you some simple encryption methods from the eighties.

It’s well worth exploring!

The best Computer Literacy Project TV shows

The archive features an impressive range of content. Some of it features even earlier television programs, like Tomorrow’s World, a BBC technology program. Watch this clip to see what computing in the sixties looked like…

But many of the programs were created as part of the project too. Here are some of the best, which you can watch online for free.

The Silicon Factor, first broadcast in 1980

This show was a prequel to everything that we’ve been living through over the last 30 years. It explores how microchips could change British industry, and what might happen if Britain fails to keep up with the rest of the world. It’s well worth watching as a useful historical document of how people viewed technology at the end of the twentieth century. There are certainly some parallels with where we are today and the concerns around artificial intelligence and automation.

Electronic Office, first broadcast in 1984

Electronic Office was a prophetic look at the lives we’d lead today. Okay, so it isn’t all prophetic, and some it might seem strange to us today. But there’s obviously much more about how we work today that would seem even stranger to anyone watching the program in the mid-eighties.

With a Little Help from the Chip, first broadcast in 1985

With a Little Help from the Chip throws up plenty of interesting parallels with where we are today in terms of IoT and connected homes. It also demonstrates how technology can be used to support people who need it. It gives us an insight on an one of the earliest ways in which technology was used to provide an innovative solution to a complex social issue.

The BBC reminds us that people drive innovation, not technology

Yes, the archive is a fun and engaging way to look at the history of software, but it also reminds us that innovation is never set in stone. Progress and development are often uncertain (and sometimes a little bit frightening). It has taken a generation of people to get us to where we are today – and it will take generations of people to build the future.

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