Hallas to study history of Acorn PhDPublished: 3rd Sep 2006, 16:22:23 | Permalink | Printable
He gets backing for new book from Acorn and ARM foundersFoundation editor Richard Hallas has left his magazine to embark upon a five year PhD study documenting the history of Acorn. In a touching farewell editorial, Richard, pictured, will tell his readers he plans to eventually write a book using his academic research.
He must spend his first year back at university completing a masters degree in the history of science and technology, then three years working on the history of Acorn and its influence on the "wider history of computing", before spending the fifth and final year penning his book.
Richard has also called for anyone who thinks they can assist in his research, from obscure technical documentation to interesting in-jokes, recollections and anecdotes, to contact him.
In the following interview with Drobe, Richard, 37, reveals the motivation behind his latest long term project, and how it all came about.
Is it really true that you're going to start a PhD into the history of Acorn?
I hope so; that's a major part of my plan. However, I'm obliged to do an MSc first, so the PhD itself is actually a year away. I'd hoped that I'd be able to start on the PhD this year, and that the fact that I've got two Bachelor degrees already, one in music, the other in computational mathematics, would have exempted me from having to spend an extra year on an MSc, but it's a requirement of the university. Luckily, I'll be able to do my MSc project in a related area - the BBC Domesday Project - so it'll help with the overall research.
Which university are you going to?
Manchester: birthplace of the Baby, the world's first stored-program computer, home of the UK National Archive for the History of Computing, and current employer of Steve Furber, designer of the ARM micro-architecture.
It was Steve Furber, in fact, who put me in touch with the right people in Manchester, and with [Acorn co-founder] Hermann Hauser for some funding.
What will your work entail?
A one-year full-time MSc first of all, the dissertation for which should be something about the BBC Domesday Project. The precise aspect of study is to be decided, but I was told that the overall subject was considered to be ideal for an MSc dissertation.
Then, assuming all goes to plan, a three-year PhD on Acorn and its position in the history of computers.
Finally, based on the research that I've accumulated whilst studying for the MSc and PhD, and having completed the PhD, it's my intention to write the definitive history of Acorn in book form.
|"I'm not expecting the book to sell like Harry Potter, but I do feel that there's much more potential, given all of Acorn's interesting aspects and the BBC connections, for a book about it to sell well than there would be for one about a lesser company."|
The book is actually the motivation for the entire project, and I've had it in mind for several years, but have had great difficulty in getting it off the ground. I wrote a detailed outline quite some time ago and have a fairly clear idea already about what I want to do with the book - although obviously, it'll be refined as my research reveals things that I don't know at present. Attracting a decent publisher, though, proved to be a futile struggle.
Given that I couldn't a publisher interested in the book, it struck me that if I could do some academic research in the field, then (a) it would be more useful in the long run as it would serve the academic community, (b) I'd hopefully get a PhD in the process, which would be nice, and (c) doing research for the PhD would provide me with the material I needed for my book along the way.
The problem was that I needed some funding, as working in the RISC OS world these days isn't the ideal way of getting rich. I will still need further funding in the future, in fact, but Hermann Hauser is providing significant help in financial and other ways, and it's his initial assistance which has got this project off the ground.
Why have you decided to do it?
Because someone really ought to do it, and you know what they say about what to do if you want a job to be done properly...
Seriously, I've been involved in the Acorn world for a long time, I have a reasonable knowledge of it, am very interested in it, and have known some of the people who helped to shape it. I also have access to certain useful resource material, and hope to be able to acquire lots more during my research. I've also had an ambition to write a book for a long time, and can think of no more worthy topic on which to write one than the UK's greatest computing innovator. I like to think that I'm a decent writer, and hope that I'll be able to make a good job of producing the definitive book on the subject.
The absence of any kind of decent history of Acorn, which was a terrifically important company, and should have been far more successful than it ever was, based on its achievements, has struck me as a matter of deep injustice for a long time. There are books on some extremely obscure aspects of computing history, and yet no publisher seemed remotely interested in anything about Acorn, despite its huge importance and influence. Even many people who know a great deal about computers are totally unaware of what Acorn achieved, and the general public won't have a clue.
|"I don't want to see Acorn being overlooked and ending up as nothing more than a historical footnote; I want to try to preserve a record of its achievements for the future and help to establish its true importance."|
Yet I feel that there's an extremely interesting story to be told, and surely there's a 'popular' - rather than niche or academic - market for a good book here, even if it sells mainly to the generation of kids who grew up with the BBC Micro. It shouldn't be forgotten, for example, that the Domesday Project involved the participation of a million school children and their families and teachers. I'd hope that a percentage of them would be sufficiently interested in reading about the project, with the benefit of hindsight, to want to buy the book. I'm not expecting it to sell like Harry Potter, but I do feel that there's much more potential, given all of Acorn's interesting aspects and the BBC connections, for a book about it to sell well than there would be for one about a lesser company.
Besides, the longer that time goes on without anyone setting the matter straight, the greater the danger of things being forgotten and Acorn's achievements lost to history. I don't want to see Acorn being overlooked and ending up as nothing more than a historical footnote; I want to try to preserve a record of its achievements for the future and help to establish its true importance.
It takes years, and the benefit of hindsight, for things to be put into their true historical perspective, but I feel that this is an ideal time for this work to be done. Acorn has been gone for a few years, and the world has moved on significantly in the intervening period, but it's close enough to the events for all the key people and information to be around and accessible, and ripe for preservation. I hope that my book will allow people, both now and in the future, to understand just how important Acorn really was, and how much we lost with its untimely demise.
Richard Hallas's website
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