Brits Who Made The Modern World

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientific innovations. In the final episode of the series, Peter traces the development of Britain’s £1.4billion computer game industry, which owes its success to the pioneering work of two Cambridge undergraduates.

In the early 1980s, computers were only just making their way into people’s homes. These simple machines were sold without software and had to be programmed by their users in a language called Basic. Those games that existed were primitive, 2-D affairs such as ‘Pong’ and ‘Space Invaders’, and were designed to be played for little more than ten minutes.

In 1981, teenager David Braben received his first computer, an Acorn Atom, for Christmas. David harboured a vision of creating a truly threedimensional computer game. “I thought, ‘Oh, it can’t be that hard’, as an arrogant teenager might do,” he recalls. “But the received wisdom of that time was you couldn’t do it on a home computer.”

The biggest obstacle was lack of memory. A modern mobile phone boasts a quarter of million times more memory than an Acorn Atom. The complex code required to create 3-D models would cause a home computer to seize up. Nonetheless, after months of work, David managed to create the 3-D image of a spaceship on his machine.

It was not until David went to Cambridge that he had the chance to develop his breakthrough. At Jesus College, he met mathematics student Ian Bell, and the pair began to develop a fully fledged 3-D world. Ian was able to expand David’s code into an outer-space environment of rockets and planets. “The reason it’s space is because space is easy to draw!” explains David.

David and Ian were convinced that a 3-D game could be developed for a home computer – but their ideas extended beyond mere graphics. Their vision was to create a game that required time and commitment from the player. This game would combine elements of storytelling and strategy with a fully functional world that could be explored over time. But to cram this world onto an 18kb hard drive, they had to spend hours writing and rewriting code to maximise the available memory.

The pair were also aware that any one of the big gaming companies could beat them to the punch. “We were terrified of someone else doing the same thing,” says David. “We weren’t so arrogant that we thought that no one else could do this.” At last they had a demo to show the computer game industry, but the question remained – was there a market for their product?

Early indications were not good, as one of the largest entertainment publishers of the time, Thorn EMI, passed on the boys’ work. “Everything we liked about it, they didn’t like,” says Ian. Thorn EMI failed to see the potential in a product that tore up the rulebook on what a computer game should be. Fortunately, Acorn Software was impressed by the demo and agreed to help turn it into a game.

David and Ian spent 18 months perfecting their baby. With the help of formulae developed by the 13th-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, they were able to expand the universe of their game to encompass a staggering 2,500 planets. In 1984, ‘Elite’ was launched onto an unsuspecting market with the help of an unprecedented publicity drive, including an event at a theme park and a tie-in novel. The game was a massive hit, selling 150,000 copies – one for every Acorn machine in the country. It revolutionised the way computer games were designed and played, and put the British software industry well and truly on the map.

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week, Peter focuses on two young designers whose vision and persistence led to the development of the world’s first vertical take-off (VTOL) aircraft – the Harrier jump jet.

This week’s story begins in 1956, when British jet engineer Gordon Lewis was shown a proposal for a VTOL plane by French designer Michel Wibault. The design centred around one large jet engine, which could drive a craft forwards, as well as powering four fans capable of lifting the plane off the ground. Though the plan was flawed, it inspired Lewis. “My reaction was, ‘Great idea, but there’s a much better way of doing it’,” he recalls. Lewis began to adapt Wibault’s blueprint and had soon come up with his own proposal. His idea involved channelling air generated by a modified jet engine into two nozzles on the side of the plane. During take-off, these nozzles would face downwards to lift the plane off the ground; then during flight, the nozzles would revolve to help propel the craft forwards. By 1957, Lewis was ready to turn his idea into reality – but he needed the assistance of a specialist air-frame designer.

Lewis contacted Ralph Hooper, a young designer from independent aircraft manufacturer Hawker. The pair worked closely together to build an experimental device, but the project soon hit a snag. One engine could not provide enough thrust to lift the craft off the ground – let alone move it through the air. Hooper came up with the ingenious idea to adapt the jet further so that the exhaust fumes coming out of the back of the engine were also diverted downwards. This alteration effectively doubled the plane’s lift power.

However, Hooper and Lewis were to face an even bigger hurdle. Government ministers were convinced that the future of warfare now lay in missiles, and were not prepared to invest in a VTOL project. What money they did have for aeroplane engineering was geared towards the effort to break the sound barrier. Luckily, Hawker had a visionary chief designer in Sir Sydney Camm, who was willing to invest the company’s own funds – at great financial risk.

By 1960, the prototype VTOL craft was ready for testing. “It all looked terribly tentative and unstable,” remembers Hooper. However, with all the nonessential equipment removed from the fuselage to reduce weight, the plane left the ground.

In 1963, Lewis and Hooper exhibited their masterpiece at the Paris international air show. In front of 110,000 people, the craft that the RAF had dubbed a ‘toy’ and a ‘crowd-pleaser’ lifted into the air – and crashed. After so many years of hard work, the two engineers had missed their big opportunity to gain funding.

The craft clearly needed a lot more work to make it viable, but Lewis and Hooper did not give up. The main problem the engineers faced was in moving the craft from hover to flight – a manoeuvre that presented the pilots with a real challenge. “Make no mistake,” says Harrier test pilot John Farley, “if you got it wrong, you were going to die.”

The real lift for the Harrier came when the US Marines began to show interest owing to their involvement in Vietnam. Seeing the advantage of a VTOL craft, the US government ordered 60 planes and injected some much-needed cash into the project. It was not until 1982, however, that the Harrier proved its worth in combat with major assaults in the Falkands conflict.

In all, 828 Harrier jump jets were built for the armed forces of five nations throughout the world. The planes are still used on a daily basis by British and US troops. “The Harrier is a world-class concept which has been accepted around the world as the leading vertical take-off and landing military aeroplane,” concludes John Farley.

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s instalment focuses on the development of Britain’s mobile-phone network. In the early 1980s, a team of engineers developed software that laid out a system of phone masts around the country. Their work helped launch Vodafone – now one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the third part of the series, Peter charts the history of Britain’s mobile-phone revolution. From clunky, brick-sized objects to the sleek, multipurpose gadgets of today’s world, mobile phones have evolved and expanded beyond all recognition. There are now more mobiles than people in the UK, but 30 years ago the concept of a cellphone network was still very much on the drawing board.

Peter tracks down the team that made it all happen, who worked from a small office behind a curry house in Newbury. Mike Pinches and Dave Target worked for a little-known company called Racal, which specialised in military radios. In 1981, Racal challenged the mighty BT in the race to build Britain’s first mobile-phone network.

Although neither Mike nor Dave knew much about phone systems, they did know an awful lot about radio waves. In order to get their network right at the first time of asking, they put their faith in a new piece of software developed in-house.

This computer programme could predict exactly how radio waves would behave when sent between mobile phones and the masts that would transmit the signals. So whilst BT simply set up its masts at existing telephone exchanges, Racal used its fancy new software to determine the ideal locations in which to put its masts.

The result was Vodafone, a mobile-phone network that soon proved itself to be superior to BT’s Cellnet. The upstart telephone company soon had many more customers than Cellnet and went on to become one of the largest companies in the world. With a value of around £100 billion, Vodafone now operates across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas – but none of this would have been possible without the pioneering genius of some humble inventors.

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s show focuses on a rocket programme that put Britain’s first satellite into orbit using chemicals more commonly found in a hair salon.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the third part of the series, Peter recounts a little-known chapter in the history of the space race. The great rivalry of the Americans and Russians is well documented, but Peter learns that the British also participated in the contest when he meets Jim Scragg and John Scott. These canny engineers were part of the team behind Black Arrow, Britain’s very own steampowered rocket programme that launched the country’s first satellite almost 40 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, Britain was producing its own nuclear missiles capable of hitting Moscow within 20 minutes of launch. But when the government decided to buy American submarinelaunched missiles, it looked as if Britain’s rocket men would soon be looking for new jobs. Instead, they lobbied the government to allow them to change their technology into a satellite-launching system called Black Arrow.

Unfortunately, the government of the day had no idea what purpose these satellites could serve. Their only concession was a three-month funding package totalling £9 million. With this comparatively small sum, the ingenious scientists built four Black Arrow rockets powered by hydrogen peroxide – the same chemical used by hairdressers to create platinum blond colouring. Mixed with a catalyst, the chemical instantly explodes into steam with enough spare oxygen to burn paraffin at 2,300 degrees Celsius and blast a rocket into orbit.

The Black Arrow team managed to fire three test rockets before the project was cancelled by the government. The fourth and final rocket successfully blasted Britain’s first satellite into orbit, where it remains today. With the cancellation of the Black Arrow project, Britain’s hopes of playing a major role in the space race ended and the glorious work of the backroom boys was forgotten – until now.

Five has commissioned Raw TV to make Brits Who Made The Modern World – a factual series presented by Peter Snow – which tracks down the unsung heroes behind some of Britain’s greatest technological advancements.

The 6 x 30 series reveals the true stories behind technological innovations we take for granted today – each the product of the ambition and vision of unlikely British engineers and inventors, who struggled against all odds.

The stories include: the tiny company that challenged the might of British Telecom in the 1980s to create Britain’s first mobile phone network; the creation of the legendary Harrier Jump jet, which was initially ignored by the RAF, but went on to help win the Falklands’ war, and the forgotten story of Britain’s rocket men, who managed to create a satellite launching rocket on the tiniest of budgets.

Also featured is the tilting train that was so advanced that British Rail cancelled it; the story of the amateur racing club that put Britain back on the FI grid with a revolutionary new car design, and the two teenagers who used the ideas of a 13th Century mathematician to create the world’s first 3d computer game.

Peter Snow said: “I’m thrilled that Five has decided to focus on the unsung heroes in recent British history. It’s fascinating to hear these remarkable stories first-hand from Britain’s pioneers.”

Five’s Commissioning Editor for Factual, Julia Harrington, said: “The series is a really enjoyable watch – stories about technology told with warmth and humour.”

Lucy Willis, Executive Producer for Raw, said: “These are tales of ingenuity and genius from some great unsung British heroes, men at the forefront of modern technology who have quietly got on with making Britain great.”

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s instalment traces the history of the UK’s experimental tilting trains of the 1970s and 80s. The Advanced Passenger Trains were intended to rival France’s TGV and Japan’s bullet train, but negative press and complaints about motion sickness helped scupper the project before it could get going.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the second part of the series, Peter uncovers the story of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train (APT). This much-maligned project is now largely remembered as the tilting train that made its passengers sick. Yet, as Peter discovers, the APT was in fact one of the greatest technological advances on the railways for 100 years.

Back in the 1970s, British Rail was determined to move into the modern age and introduce trains that could match the high-speed rail fleets of France and Japan. In a bid to slash journey times on the long and winding west coast mainline, the BR board acted somewhat out of character and hired two whizz kids from outside the industry – engineers Alan Wickens and Mike Newman – to oversee the APT project. The result was an Advanced Projects Group so radical that even Margaret Thatcher was reputedly a fan.

The French and Japanese had produced their high-speed trains simply by building new straight lines at massive expense. The APT, by contrast, was supposed to use Britain’s existing twisty track whilst at the same time nearly doubling the speed of intercity journeys. To achieve this remarkably tall order, the train was designed to tilt around the curves. In practice, Alan and Mike’s experimental train, the APT-E, was a total success. Its revolutionary tilting system and advanced hydrokinetic brakes enabled it to hit 150mph on lines where other trains could only hit 70.

How, then, did this successful prototype result in one of the most derided episodes of British Rail’s history? Once the APT-E left the Advanced Projects Group, it was handed over to BR’s more traditional engineers. Dozens of cost-cutting changes later, it entered service before it was fully tested. A disastrous trial run with journalists onboard – many of whom had already partaken of the train’s generous bar – resulted in complaints of motion sickness and helped destroy the project’s credibility in the press. A handful of APTs saw service in the mid-1980s, when they regularly posted fast journey times – but by then the political will had died and the trains were quietly withdrawn.

However, this was not the end of the tilting train. In the 1980s, British Rail sold the technology to Fiat. Almost 20 years later – in a twist of painful irony – Virgin Trains spent billions of pounds buying a fleet of tilting Pendolino trains back from the Italians for use on the same west coast line that the APT was originally designed to serve.

Peter Snow presents this fascinating documentary series which looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

The first instalment finds out how the country’s successful Formula One industry has its origins in a remarkable amateur racing club and a visionary group of motor enthusiasts. Snow meets the surviving members of the Lotus Engineering team whose revolutionary car, the Lotus 25, changed the sport forever.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

Over the course of this six-part series, Peter learns about the jet that helped win the Falklands War; finds out how scientists used chemicals from a hair salon to launch rockets; and hears the remarkable story of two teenagers who teamed up with a 13th-century mathematician to create the world’s first 3D computer game. He encounters the men who worked behind a Newbury curry house to create Britain’s first mobile-phone network. And he tells the tale of the train that was so advanced that British Rail cancelled it, only for Virgin Trains to spend billions buying it back from the Italians 20 years later.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the first instalment of the series, Peter discovers how Britain’s £5 billion-a-year Formula One industry has its roots in a tiny North London lockup and the humble Austin 7, a vintage car produced during the interwar years.

Back in the early 1950s, men like Dick Scammell, Len Terry and Mike Costin were a million miles away from the glitzy world of Formula One. Their racing took place on disused airstrips, where they drove souped-up Austin 7s they had brought off scrapheaps and modified in their backyards.

Their dreams of racing on the world stage would have gone unrealised if it had not been for one of their number, the late Colin Chapman. His modified Austin 7 was christened the ‘Lotus Mk3’. Not only did this nippy little vehicle wipe the floor with its competitors on the amateur circuit, it also went on to form the basis of Lotus Engineering, planting the seed for the company’s near-total dominance of Formula One in the mid-1960s.

Whilst Colin Chapman was the visionary behind Lotus, Dick, Len and Mike were its backbone. From making kit cars for members of the 750 motor club, they went on to design the legendary Lotus 25, the first monocoque (or single shell) racing car on the F1 circuit. Debuting in 1962, this car changed the face of Formula One and made Britain the epicentre of the world motor-racing industry. Thanks to the amateurs from the 750 club and their legendary car, over half the vehicles on today’s Formula One grid are designed and built in Britain.

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