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.
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- K D Tennent
- 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.