Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Recent Business History on BBC Four/iplayer

BBC Four occasionally gives us some excellent documentaries that, while often concentrating on the products, also feature business history topics, often in an accessible (and entertaining) fashion for a wide audience. The channel has long ran excellent music documentaries which often talk about the business side to some extent too; also a few months ago the Crude Britannia series gave an excellent overview of the British oil industry.

The present 'Electric Revolution' season, focusing on how electrical devices have changed our lives, has also brought some excellent material to our screens. Last night I watched Podfather, a biographical documentary of the inventor of the silicon chip and Intel founder Robert Noyce. As well as telling us about the science behind Noyce's invention the programme also told us about Noyce's role in establishing Silicon Valley's corporate culture. Silicon Valley business historian and Noyce biographer Leslie Berlin was even drafted in as one of the programme's talking heads. The story of how Noyce and his colleagues broke away from their original employer, William Shockley, to gain the patronage of the Fairchild Coporation, and then broke away from Fairchild to form Intel was well told. Noyce's style of management was also noted; that he was uncomfortable with large hierarchical organisations, and formed Intel as a company without a hierachy where senior management would work on the same floor as their underlings. The family tree aspect of Silicon Valley was also noted; the existence of many firms that split away from Noyce, and also Noyce's role as mentor to Apple's founder Steve Jobs, and Jobs' own role as mentor to the founders of Google.

Also part of the 'Electric Revolution' season was Micro Men, a rare drama about a business topic, set in Cambridge's 'Silicon Fen' against the backdrop of the British home/micro computing boom of the early 1980s. Micro Men is a slightly tongue-in-cheek dramatization of the competition between the eccentric inventor Clive Sinclair and his former employee Chris Curry, who breaks out Silicon Valley style to start up his own firm after Sinclair fails to be persuaded about the potential market for computers. Sinclair is played by the British comedy actor Alexander Armstrong with great comedy value, but the programme is no mere comedy biopic. Serious business topics are dealt with; the drama shows Sinclair's annoyance with the interference of the late 1970s Labour government's National Enterprise Board, before going on to show how government intervention shaped Curry's new company Acorn. Acorn won a major contract with the BBC to create a new machine for a computer literacy TV programme, the BBC Micro, which the Thatcher government then funded the purchase of for schools, much to Sinclair's annoyance. Consequently the first computer used by many people that were at school in the UK in the 1980s or early 1990s was the BBC Micro. The programme then showed how Sinclair's company accidentally found success in the games market with its cheaper and smaller Spectrum model, while Sinclair ironically coveted the BBC Micro's more worthy market. Both firms directed investment into competing with each other rather than concentrating on their strengths, with Sinclair bringing out the QL, a failed business/educational machine, while Acorn developed the Electron, a games machine which launched only after the gaming boom was over. The programme even deals with Acorn's descent into financial difficulty as the bank happily gives the company bigger loans for expansion, and it carries out an ill-advised stock exchange flotation. The programme deals with these topics in an entertaining way, although naturally some of the events that are depicted are probably exaggerated. But its well worth watching to understand the fate of Britian's long forgotten domestically owned computer industry, and particularly to understand why entrepreneurs are often good at starting businesses but poor at running mature businesses.

Both programmes are still on iplayer until Monday 19th October.


  1. I forwarded this blog to the computer historians mailing list. What follows are the reactions to it.

  2. IMHO the Bob Noyce telebio last night was as brilliant as the other programmes in the series in the series were terrible. In fact most lasted only a few minutes before I switched off and I missed the second (or more if there were more) part of the drama about Sinclair and Acorn.

    In Ken Tennet's blog he talks about "Acorn's descent into financial difficulty as the bank happily gives the company bigger loans for expansion, and it carries out an ill-advised stock exchange flotation." Acorn was not a client and I didn't do the float but I did organise and host a conference ('84 or 85?), on the paperless office (ha ha), at the NCC in Manchester to which I invited Acorn. I don't remember now but Acorn were represented either by Chris Curry or Herman Hauser. It was required by Stock Exchange rules then, and is legally obligatory now, not to make any statement that provides new information to the market without a formal statement to the Stock Exchange. The Acorn presentation included the jaw dropping news that sales were down some massive number and that the company would miss expectations by miles. By the end of the immediately following coffee break the share price had collapsed and they hurriedly departed. I'm sorry now I didn't persist with the drama but perhaps I'll catch up on the iplayer.

    kind regards

    Dr Roger Neil Barton

  3. Thanks to Bernardo for the heads-up, and to Neil for the first-hand
    recollection. The historical material in the BBC4 'Electric Revolution' season
    seems to be attracting a lot of interest: I hope it'll soon be available outside
    the UK.

    I thought I would chip in with some thoughts on _Micro Men_, as I research
    (slowly) in this area and have an interest in how technologies, and
    technologists, are portrayed for more general audiences. What fascinated me
    about _Micro Men_ is that it seemed to be two concepts welded together: a broad
    comedy about a caricatured version of Clive Sinclair, and a relatively careful
    attempt to make drama out of techie business history.

    I'd be interested to know what others made of this. It seems reasonable to
    assume that the piece was commissioned on the strength of the appeal of a
    favourite national myth (such were Sinclair's triumphs and disasters in the
    1980s that he remains recognisable, I'd guess, to most people in the UK aged
    30+). 'Factual' content in popular broadcast media is almost generally deemed to
    require some sort of sugar-coating: the approach used here arguably has some
    merits over the usual alternative, which is to tell very loud and breathless
    stories about how whatever is under discussion has 'changed the world'.

    The melding certainly had its problems. The pure farce scenes (Mensa groupies?)
    jarred with the plot, and the genre-clash was sometimes awkward. I particularly
    noticed the (non-)characterisation of Nigel Searle, who, as MD of Sinclair's
    firm, was perched on the interface between the Comedy Clive material and the
    attempt to portray real industrial developments. Conventional comedy logic would
    require Searle to be a stock henchman; strict representation, on the other hand,
    would have given no obvious grounds to differentiate him from the Acorn people
    with whom the narrative sympathises. In order to fit both halves, the fictional
    Searle became a cipher, relaying messages and influencing nothing. Meanwhile,
    the personalities assigned to the Acorn staff (Hauser as cosmic bluffer; Furber
    and Wilson as dull-and-duller; Curry, very improbably, as wide-eyed everyman)
    were as much inventions as Comedy Clive, and rather less upfront about it.

    As to names, places and chronology, however, this was closer to the documented
    evidence than the vast majority of drama-docs. More importantly, there were
    earnest and sometimes very successful attempts to represent an episode in
    technological identity-forming and the trajectories of the businesses involved,
    rather than going down the easy legend-making route. Capital, in this drama, was
    raised not by self-evident visionary brilliance, but by pandering to the bank
    manager's prejudice. There was no hint of the 'lone developer' myth. Tension was
    wrung from overoptimistic sales projections. Above all, the fictional Clive
    Sinclair mirrored his real-life counterpart in rating the microcomputers which
    defined his public identity as a distinctly secondary concern.

    It's in the nature of these productions to truncate, telescope and omit. There
    was only one simplification which I found seriously distorting: the virtual
    absence, until the closing scene, of the USA. Sinclair's principal rival from
    around 1982 was not Acorn but Commodore; the ill-fated Acorn Electron was an
    attempt to carve a share of a sector defined as much by Commodore as by
    Sinclair, while the even more ill-fated Sinclair QL was at some level a response
    both to the emerging office dominance of the IBM PC, and to Apple's visible
    commitment to promoting alternatives. Acorn's unreleased business machines, and
    both firms' adventures in the American retail market (via Timex, in Sinclair's
    case) further complicate the tale. Oddly, the show's closing caption -- "The
    home computer market is now dominated by giant American companies" -- presents
    the sloppiest message in the whole production.


    James Sumner
    University of Manchester

  4. Hi James

    I think you are spot on regarding -Micro Men-. Little for me to add
    which I will do from the perspective of an ex-pat who actually owned a
    Timex circa 1980.

    _Micro Men_ was indeed in need of a better introduction which briefly
    told about US/IBM dominance and Wilson's 'white heat'.

    In my view the combination of comedy and factual in _Micro Men_ seems
    to have made their errors and omissions more palatable. Certainly when
    compared with claims made in _Podfather_ which positioned Noyce as
    Godfather of Sillicon Valley and the digital revolution. I am not
    disclaiming Noyce's importance, but a brief browse at Analee
    Sexenian's work might have helped to tone down some of their more
    outrageous claims (i.e. Noyce single handedly inventing Sillicon
    Valley and venture capitalism).

    Reducing the genealogy of Fairchild Corp to Apple and Google (when the
    producers did try to produce some form genalogy-tree graph) is the
    kind of simplistic representation that media people are guilty of time
    and again.

    It was interesting to see that the industry-university link and
    communities of practice (as opposed to the lonely entrepreneur) were
    strongly portrayed in _Micro Men_ while they were mute in

    When comparing both programs I was left wondering the extent to which
    their distinctive treats were random or purposeful attempts to cater
    to different audiences (with _Micro Men_ for the UK and _Podfather_
    for the US).

    But in spite of their shortcomings, I did not mind at all ending
    Friday and Saturday night with respectively _Micro Men_ and

    University of Leicester

  5. Thanks for reposting. I agree with most of the above - I had no detailed previous knowledge of the subjects dealt with in either programme, but there are always limitations in television simply because you have only limited time to get the story accross. Incidentally I saw Herman Hauser speak at a BIS event recently and thought that the chap that played him in Micro Men had certainly been well cast, even if he wasn't as visionary as his on screen equivalent!

  6. Great Post, I remember this stuff form when I was younger. Sinclair was the first computer that I played around with. It seems so long ago now. Its amazing how far we have come.

  7. The reality at Sinclair Research was complex. "Micro Men" captured some of it. I didn't think the program was very entertaining, but I'm grateful to have been portrayed by someone much taller and more handsome than I ever was!



About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.