Micro Men – stirring memories…

I’ve just finished watching the BBC drama ‘Micro Men’ on BBC Four. It’s a strange thing to see a drama in which many of the events and characters are familiar on a personal level. I worked for both Clive Sinclair and Hermann Hauser in the late 80s and early 90s, two of the most prominent characters portrayed in the show. I knew of, but did not know personally, the third key character, Chris Curry.

My contact with Clive was limited, though I used to see him about the office when I worked on the Z88 project . His right hand technical man, Jim Westwood, was someone I had daily contact with for several months. For the purposes of drama, he was portrayed as shy and retiring. He was, in some ways, a gentle man. But the drama completely failed to capture his powerful personality which included occasional moments of fierce anger. As in the show, there was a lot of swearing, but it was by no means limited only to Clive. It was the first time in my life that I’d witnessed grown ups really swear. It was exciting, as well as a little scary.

Sadly, the show missed the depth with which engineering ran right through Jim’s very being. I remember a particular occasion where I had some very elaborate theories as to why my prototype Z88 model might be misbehaving. Jim, always methodical, thought first about power. He had me investigate the batteries by rubbing their ends gently on some clean white paper, revealing tell tale black marks. Jim’s hardware was fine. Slightly greasy batteries were the source of intermittent power. For me, it was an early real world example of how experience can trump quick thinking. I’m not sure I wholly absorbed the lesson at the time, but the memory stays with me.

At one point in the show Hermann says ‘I’ll make the tea’. In the early days of the Active Book Company, based then in the Market Square in Cambridge, I remember a particularly hot day. Hermann bought the whole team cornettos. In one way, we knew it was a calculated gesture, an act carefully designed to raise morale. But in another way, it was quite genuine. He was happy to do this small thing for us, knowing that he couldn’t, at that point in time, do anything more to move the project forward in a technical way. And, given who we were and what we were doing, we rather respected the calculated gesture. It was like a well thought out program, designed to achieve a specific effect. It worked.

Hermann made you believe in the project and he oozed a sense of vision. He didn’t always say much, but I always had a sense of him thinking big, thinking beyond the details. He was confident in himself, to be sure. But my experience was that he made me and all my colleagues feel confident, he helped us believe that we were really good and could could achieve the goal. In the case of the Active Book, it was too much. We were trying to make Objective Oriented Programming (then we used Smalltalk), now common place, work on hardware that just didn’t have the grunt. A short lived skunk project to rewrite all the software in C never quite came off. But the vision was always fantastic. It was a privilege and a delight to work on the Active Book project. Or it was, until the directors decide to sell up and move on. With the advent of the iPhone, the hardware has caught up with the vision. That was the kind of product we were shooting for.

The BBC film mixed drama with historical footage including stills of computer magazines that I remember buying at WH Smiths and poring over for hours. The pub in which the characters met, the Baron of Beef, was once run by the father of a school friend. I went to parties there as small child and, later, as a teenager, drank the occasional pint.

Watching the film, I grew nostalgic for the friends and colleagues that were not portrayed. Paul Bond, the big brain behind the Z88 and the Active Book, was a mentor and a role model for the late teenage me. He once took me flying in his Cessna. As exciting as that was, and it was exciting, the battle to break his software and to persuade him to accept some of my user interface ideas, was even more exhilarating. With a bigger canvas, Paul would have been at the edge of this drama. As would, I suspect, Eric the wireman, who shocked me with his homophobia at an age where I lacked the confidence to protest and, indeed, in an age where such protest was much more of a challenge. Perhaps further out of this drama’s brief, not least because further forward in time, I thought of other good friends, such as Jamie, whose Scottishness seemed so exotic to me then, and Martin, with whom I shared Thatcher’s passing – a delight for me and a disappointment for him. Most of all, the show made me remember how exciting it was to be making new things. And, of course, it still is.