City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

There is an excellent article in The Guardian today, actually an extract of the forthcoming book Backroom Boys, by Francis Spufford. It took me right back to 1982, when the 12-year old me started fiddling about with a BBC microcomputer at school (yes, for those who weren't in the UK, the BBC actually made a computer (in conjunction with Acorn computers) to accompany a TV series about the new 'home computer revolution'.) The key game, even key informational product, of the era was Elite, and Spufford tells the story of how David Braben and Ian Bell made it.

Spufford is very good at distilling the way the game was devised, coded, and eventually picked up by the prescient Acorn ("a coder's company", significantly). But also on the seemingly unlimited potential of those early machines, akin to crystal radio-like boxes, loading programs off cassette tapes into 2kb of RAM. Remember this feeling?

"If you had a certain kind of mind, as Braben did, the muteness of the machine, when you turned it on, was full of promise, not disappointment. It meant that it was going to do whatever you told it to do; whatever you could think of to tell it to do. It was a slicer, a condenser, a heaper-up, a puller-down, a sorter, a randomiser, a multiplier, a weaver, a mirror-image maker, and far more."

Braben and Bell developed the game almost despite the culture they were situated in (by then, Cambridge University), where some of the more useless aspects of British culture would be intensified – particularly a suspicion of technological progress, of Two Cultures not talking, little idea of how innovation could be commercialised, and a problem with aspects of 'the modern' in general:

"They had come to a place where the arts/science split in British education (and British culture, for that matter) manifested itself as a social split … There was a wider dimension to the split as well. In 1982, popularised science hadn't yet risen above the horizon in Britain as a cultural phenomenon. No chaos theory as a universal reference point; not much evolutionary biology, since Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould were only then beginning to make their mark on public consciousness; no cosmology deployed à la Stephen Hawking as a modern replacement for religious truths. In particular, computing in its DIY phase didn't resonate as it would later. You wouldn't have found French literary theorists writing about cyberspace in 1982, any more than they'd have written about household plumbing. Computers weren't glamorous."

That I remember well. Despite the promise offered, as noted above, when staring at those strangely compelling virtually blank screens (Oh how different to today's cluttered desktops and their workaround fixes), this was not a glamorous business. It was, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Spufford makes further interesting connections with wider cultural shifts at the time, placing the game in the context of the Thatcher years and  the associated 'libertarian' instinct – something which may have stunted meaningful development of this culture as much as enabled it:

"(In Elite,) one thing you couldn't do was cooperate with anyone. All the other apparent actors in the game universe were ingenious mathematical routines in paper-thin disguise. You were on your own with your enemies and the market prices. In this, of course, the game was beautifully in sync with the times. Margaret Thatcher had recently declared that there was no such thing as society; in the game universe, that was literally true. Bell and Braben were creating a cosmos of pure competition. It was a kind of reflection, not of the reality of 1980s Britain, but of the defiant thought in the heads of those who were benefiting from Thatcherism, who wanted to believe that behaviour not much more complex than the choices you got in the game was enough to satisfy the country's needs. Bell and Braben got a lot of the inspiration for the game's universe from the "libertarian" American sci-fi they were reading, but at that time they also shared a broadly Conservative outlook. If Thatcher represented clear ideas with hard edges, they were on her side. Soon after they signed up with Acornsoft, she won the 1983 election."

Non-politically, perhaps the clearest indicator of how the times have a-changed is exemplified by Thorn EMI's reaction to Braben and Bell's offer:

"(Thorn EMI) sent a rejection letter that missed the point with almost comical thoroughness. "It said," remembers Braben, "'The game needs three lives, it needs to play through in no more than about 10 minutes, users will not be prepared to play for night after night to get anywhere, people won't understand the trading, they don't understand 3D, the technology's all very impressive but it's not very colourful'."

Ah, again, you feel there must be light years between that quote and our world of MMORPGs (most people thought Star Wars was a film!), PC Baangs, and the titanic video games industry. It is 20 whole years, but the connection between then and now is Elite.

The Guardian: Masters of their universe Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin
Google directory: Elite


4 responses to “Journal: “Elite”, tiny Acorns, and Britain in the 80s”

  1. Dan Avatar

    Interestingly, I’ve just noticed Paul Hammond has a slightly more coherent and totally different train of thought based on the same article.


  2. eggwhite Avatar

    desktop metaphor


  3. Bagel Belly Blog Avatar

    Powerbook redux

    More Mac stuff, partly to try and convince Marc and Sylvain to give in and buy themselves Powerbooks. Come on guys, you know you want to! Today: what’s on my Mac. A stroll through the essential utilities and applications that have been installed and ke…


  4. Dan Avatar

    Links originally sent to this post from other sites (before I turned trackbacks off due to spam)

    » desktop metaphor from eggwhite
    [Read More]

    » Powerbook redux from Bagel Belly Blog
    More Mac stuff, partly to try and convince Marc and Sylvain to give in and buy themselves Powerbooks. Come on guys, you know you want to! Today: what’s on my Mac. A stroll through the essential utilities and applications that have been installed and ke… [Read More]


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