Adam Hart-Davis

Interview: Adam Hart-Davis, TV science presenter

Image credit: Nick Smith

Veteran TV presenter and author Adam Hart-Davis takes a nostalgic and humorous look at what our world was like before digital technology. 1967 was more like a technological Renaissance to be celebrated than a dark age from which we needed to be rescued, he says.

“In some respects we need to go back to the analogue world,” says Adam Hart-Davis. “There was a time when you couldn’t move for digital watches, but today I only have an analogue watch. They’re much better for telling the time, and you can even navigate with them. Something I long for is a mechanical skeleton clock where you can see the movement. I’ve actually made a wooden clock in the past.”

Hart-Davis isn’t joking. The former presenter of ‘Tomorrow’s World’, ‘Science Shack’ and ‘What the Romans Did for Us’ is not only one of our more established faces of technology on the small screen, he’s also a good old-fashioned boffin. Quite apart from being the author of dozens of books – including such titles as ‘The World’s Stupidest Inventions’ – he’s a scientist, photographer and wood-engineer, boasting enough honorary doctorates to wallpaper his water closet (a household location that has inspired his borderline obsession with engineering of the Victorian flushing toilet).

Married to popular science author Susan Blackmore (a pioneer in the field of memes), he’s also a descendant of King William IV, a cousin of former Prime Minister David Cameron, a fifth cousin once removed of the reigning monarch, and a bit of an all-round smarty-pants.

Back in 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’, Hart-Davis was a 24-year-old PhD candidate at the University of York, conducting research in organometallic chemistry. With a certain amount of nostalgia he recalls: “in that year ‘the computer’ came to the university. Nobody had personal computers in those days – they didn’t exist. Yet ‘the computer’ came, which meant that we could take our numbers to be crunched.” Then, says Hart-Davis, you went away and waited. “If you were lucky you would find that someone would have run your program for you. Yet there were always mistakes, so in reality it took about three days to get your results back.” At this point, Hart-Davis says those with the sense to perform the operation manually, using log tables, would have reached their result within half an hour. If that sounds frightening, what really scared Hart-Davis was that his supervisor was more likely to believe results generated by the computer simply because they had come from it and not from one of his students. “That was before I wrote my first book, ‘The Scientific Eye’, on a huge Imperial manual typewriter I bought from the Oxford University Press for £5.”

Audio communications were slightly different too: “When I joined Yorkshire Television we had 12 phones in the science office, and the bill for one of them, for one quarter, was £5,000.” This was because in the pre-internet days, TV researchers had no choice but to do all their background work over the phone. “We didn’t even have a fax machine. But in those days you could pick up the phone and call the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask about earthquakes if you wanted to, so long as you worked in British television. Yet there were drawbacks,” he says, recalling public telephones that had to be fed with coins. You needed a lot of them: “And it was useless. I remember checking in at the Holiday Inn at Boise, Idaho, simply because I had a lot of phone calls to make. I made $100-worth of calls in an hour one lunchtime and then checked out. I think that they were a bit bemused.”

Hart-Davis is telling these anecdotes not so much in the spirit of a trip down memory lane but to provide context for a world that was in some respects so different it is barely recognisable to us today. “If you wanted to know something about the Space Race, you simply had to phone an expert. There were encyclopaedias, but there was nothing like Wikipedia and, of course, there weren’t search engines like Google. Life was very, very different in those days.”

While researching ‘Don’t Ask Me’ for Magnus Pyke, Miriam Stoppard and David Bellamy, he recalls viewers would be asked to come up with new ideas or solutions to puzzles. “They would then write postcards the day after the programme aired. If we were lucky, these would arrive by Friday, leaving us with one working day to go through them before the next recording. Once I asked for information about rainfall and I got 2,000 postcards on Friday. I then had to turn all this data into a map to show where the rain had been falling. It was a nightmare. I sat in the office until the cleaners came in at 4am, and only just got it done in time to hand to the graphics people. Yes, it was a much slower time.”

It might have been slower, but from the technology observer’s point of view there was a lot going on. The Cold War had reached its most complex and threatening position, but the Apollo space programme was well under way and Concorde was taking to the skies. “The image of Neil Armstrong stepping out of the lunar module saying ‘that’s one small step’ was a culmination of a technological revolution that had started back in 1961. The transmission of those words was interrupted by static, and so we still don’t quite know exactly what words followed. What I do remember though, was being absolutely amazed by being able to watch pictures on the TV set being broadcast from the Moon.”

The only supersonic passenger airliner that ever worked “was based on 1950s technology. Of course, Concorde didn’t fly until 1967, but it was built on the technology of a decade before that. I’ve been in the cockpit, and in among all these dials and levers where the pilot sits on the left, there’s a small window with a sign saying ‘Do not open when in flight’. You would have thought that a pilot going along at Mach 2 might have the sense to realise that it was probably quite a good idea to keep the windows closed. However, Concorde was wonderful and it’s a great pity that it never really took off, if you see what I mean. It was never going to be a commercial success and it was a shame when it stopped flying.”

Despite the late 1960s being the era of manual typewriters, coin-op telephones and punch cards, Hart-Davis doesn’t really hold much faith in the idea that until digital technology came along, we were somehow living in the Middle Ages of analogue, awaiting rescue. For him, this was a technological Renaissance.

“Computers haven’t made us any more intelligent. In fact I’d say that they have made us less so. Today, I’m really worried about the art of map reading. People can’t read maps anymore, because they rely so heavily on their satnavs. Yet if there is a war, the first thing anyone is going to do is explode a big bomb overhead and all our communications will go, with the result that, apart from everything else, people will be totally lost. They won’t have a clue as to how to find London, let alone Bismarck Street.”

For all the sense of cultural freedom, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the hippie movement and Flower Power, 1967 was in the grips of the nuclear arms race that intensified to the point of bringing the world to the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

“This was the scariest bit of the whole lot. One error, one misjudgement, could have spelled absolute doom for all. Yet one of the things that became absolutely apparent was that the nuclear deterrent was actually deterring people. Both sides were so scared they pulled back. There was the sense that we were starting to calm down, thinking that if we didn’t have a war over Cuba, then it was becoming less likely that we would about minor things.

“The atmosphere gradually got better, which may have led us to become complacent, because most of those missiles are still out there somewhere. We have destroyed a fair number of them, but the US still has 10,000 and that’s enough to destroy most of the world. Unfortunately, with President Donald Trump of the United States and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in power, the button is closer to being pressed again. It’s a strange experiment, threatening to blow up the world.”

Hart-Davis, who has written books on the great Victorian engineers and presented TV programmes on technology through the ages, thinks our current affection for retro technology probably stems from our uncertainty over the future.

“All sorts of futurologists predict this, that and the other. They’re nearly always wrong. Will there be a revolution where we reject digital and go back to pre-digital technology? No. That is very unlikely, despite our fondness for vinyl records and film cameras today. People are embracing some of the old technologies for sure, because working with wood for example, is lovely and fun and useful. Yet the problem is that, unfortunately, we will never be able to make enough tables and chairs by hand to overtake the likes of Ikea.

“On the other hand, if you make your own chair, you will love it, and that is a satisfying feeling that you won’t get from anything mass-produced. However, we now live in a world where you can’t make many of the things you want: you can’t make a smartphone, for example, which is one of the reasons that so many of the traditional craft skills we once had are disappearing.”

He goes on to say that the ubiquity of hand-held electronic devices might make our lives easier, but is ultimately reducing our ability to concentrate, solve problems and make things.

There was a time when Hart-Davis edited books on chess, and would find himself at chess conferences. At one such event, he encountered David Bronstein, one of the greatest chess players of the 1960s. After dinner, Hart-Davis challenged the Soviet grand master to a game and set up the board in the hotel foyer. Bronstein granted Hart-Davis five minutes for each of his moves to his one minute “which gave me plenty of time to resign. I asked him how he could play so fast, and he replied: ‘I don’t use my brain. I just play with my fingertips.’ In a way that is ludicrous, but in another it’s not. In any case, he beat me in minutes. This is exactly what we once did as kids, whether it was Meccano or needlecraft. Kids are losing, or rather not learning, this ‘knowledge in the fingertips’ today because they sit around watching telly”.

Hart-Davis, who is a skilled wood-worker, says this is important for the development of the mind. “I’m inventing a machine out of wood that will carry a bottle of wine and four glasses into my garden using only one hand. That seems to me to be very, very important.”

Has technology taken us backwards over the past 50 years? Hart-Davis is keen to point out that he sees many ways in which our lives today have been made better by technology, and doesn’t want to come across as a Luddite, singing folk songs about how good everything used to be. “Yet I do think that what we need for the future is a simplifying procedure.”

Hart-Davis, who is an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, says it is “brilliant that my phone can take pictures that are better than anything I used to take on my film cameras. The problem is that my phone seems to be able to hold only about 20,000 of them, while there are 30,000 more on my computer. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a piece of software that just automatically deleted, say, 19 out of every 20 you take?”

The biggest headache technology has, says Hart-Davis, is that it can’t un-invent itself, and “is taking over. The internet is now out of control and we can’t stop it. We are on the point of having self-replicating robots. Within the next 50 years, human beings will be redundant and we won’t like that at all, which will lead us to develop increasingly dangerous ways of making a nuisance of ourselves. This is worrying because humans are inherently greedy. If you have an iPhone 6, then you want an iPhone 7. If you’re Vladimir Putin and you have a big bomb, then you will want a bigger one. If you are Kim Jong-un, you’re going to want an even bigger one.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles