Seven decades of royal technology
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She was the first head of state to send an email and these days prefers an eco-hybrid car to the State Carriage. The Queen has always kept abreast of current technology.
Although little is known about the Queen’s private life, there are enough clues to create the strong impression that she has been a keen user of contemporary technology throughout her reign. From the first computers to digital connectivity, from recording songs on a cassette recorder to running the Royal train on biofuel, from enjoying computer games to driving hybrid cars, the monarch has stayed in touch with technology trends for more than 70 years. Here we take the opportunity of her Platinum Jubilee to review some of the technologies the Her Majesty is known to have used through the decades, plus a few that we think might come to the rescue of the royal household from time to time.
When the Queen and the late Prince Philip wed in 1947, post-war food rationing was still in place and so they had to scrounge ingredients for their 9ft (2.7m)-tall wedding cake. Donors from as far afield as Australia chipped in with ingredients, earning the eight-tier monster the nickname ‘10,000-mile cake’ (the concept of food miles was evidently lost on the future Queen’s chief confectioner). While the statistics are mind-boggling, perhaps more alarming is that the 60lb of butter, 55lb of sugar, 75lb of flour, 660 eggs, 80 oranges and lemons, 300lb of dried nuts and fruits, plus three-and-a-half gallons of Navy rum were all mixed by mechanical machinery.
By the 1950s, the royal baking process had started to benefit from the addition of the electric motor, with the Braun Multimix (which appeared in 1953 – the year of Elizabeth’s coronation) becoming a symbol of how the kitchen of the future was to become automated. It’s an open secret that the Queen’s favourite cake is chocolate biscuit cake of which, the Royal Household has let slip, she routinely eats one slice per day.
Before the 1970s there are very few informal photographs of the Queen and virtually none that could be interpreted as Her Majesty interacting with technology. But given her later willingness to be photographed sitting in front of computers (something that has become increasingly common in her nineties), it’s likely that she would have encountered the earliest incarnations of the graphical user interface pointer controller that we take for granted today as the computer mouse. First demonstrated in 1968, the ‘computer-aided display control’ was designated ‘mouse’ by American engineer Bill English, and was an evolution of the World War Two trackball.
Today it’s widely accepted that the inventor of the mouse was specialist in the field of human-computer interaction Douglas Engelbart, who essentially adapted the principles of the planimeter to the process of inputting x- and y-axis co-ordinate data. The first written reference to the mouse was on 14 November 1963, when Engelbart wrote in his diary of a device called a ‘bug’ that in a ‘3-point’ form could have a ‘drop point and 2 orthogonal wheels’. By 1964 the bug was a mouse, in part because of its resemblance to the rodent, but also because screen cursors at the time were referred to as CATs. As computer language evolved, the techie plural ‘mouses’ has given way to ‘mice’, with the latter term entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 1984.
Although the compact cassette – an analogue magnetic tape format for audio recording and playback – can be traced back to the early 1960s, it wasn’t until a decade later that ‘cassette culture’ kicked in, in an era when western music was smuggled behind the Iron Curtain in small cases of spool-to-spool polyester plastic film. Evolving from reel-to-reel, the plastic cases came pre-loaded with (mostly) popular music or were blank, allowing users to record what they wanted. The playback/record device at the time was a top-loading ‘piano-key’ operated machine with analogue VU meters. The symbols for stop, play, eject and so on became de facto standards that would eventually be emulated on software control panels.
There’s anecdotal evidence that the Queen used a cassette recorder to immortalise a vocal session with her sister Princess Margaret in 1990. The royal duo apparently laid down ten tracks as a present for the late Queen Mother, who would listen to the original tape (no copies were made) in her car. History rather unkindly refuses to tell us what songs were recorded, but perhaps it is too much to hope that one of them was ‘The March of the Black Queen’, by the band Queen, from their album ‘Queen II’.
The Queen’s life has been steeped in tradition, but she has kept up with the vast technological advances during her reign
August 1981 is a landmark date in the history of technology, due to it being the moment IBM launched its first microcomputer, the IBM model 5150. Created by a team of engineers led by Don Estridge in Boca Raton, Florida, the 5150 was to lay the blueprint for the most popular computer design standard at the time. The machine, originally retailing at $1,565 ($5,000 in today’s money), was based on open architecture and third-party peripherals with expansion cards and software increasingly developed to support it. Unlike its competitor technologies, the 5150 was warmly received, with BYTE magazine stating: “IBM [has] stepped into a void at the center of a crowded market.” At one point IBM was selling 40,000 units per month.
Only a few years earlier, on 26 March 1976, the Queen became the first head of state to send an email. Photographed by British computer scientist Peter Kirstein standing at the keyboard of a PC, Her Majesty pressed a few buttons and sent a communication from her account ‘HME2’ (‘Her Majesty Elizabeth II’) across the ARPANET, the computer network that would evolve into the internet.
While we can never be certain about how the Queen relaxes, it can be stated with a reasonable degree of certainty that she has dabbled in home video games. According to Wired, our monarch has played a bowling game – probably ‘Brunswick Pro Bowling’ – on a Wii console. Her interest apparently was ignited after watching her grandson, Prince William, doing battle on the console, further inspiring his consort Catherine to present the equipment to Her Majesty.
While this console places events in the 21st century, the pastime of playing arcade video games at home stretches back several decades to its Golden Age in the 1990s, to the 100-million-selling PlayStation (aka, PS, PS1 or PSX). Released on 3 December 1994, PS received glowing accolades, with Next Generation video game magazine saying: “To succeed in this extremely cut-throat market, you need a combination of great hardware, great games and great marketing. Whether by skill, luck or just deep pockets, Sony has scored three out of three in the first salvo of this war.” Even today, the PlayStation is routinely placed in lists of the best entertainment technology ever, with the Guardian declaring as recently as 2020 that its success was so profound it “ruled the 1990s”.
With its 775 rooms and 828,000 square feet of living space, it’s a fair bet that there’s plenty of carpet at Buckingham Palace and continual vacuuming goes on in the corridors. Not so. Royals dislike the sound of traditional carpet cleaning machines and have instructed staff that their Axminsters are to be swept and not ‘vacuum’ cleaned. As one royal insider informed E&T: “Cleaners sweep carpets, lest royal ears are offended by vacuum cleaners.”
But this approach does overlook the option of deploying autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners that have been around since 2002. Described by the National Museum of American History as the first successful domestic robot, iRobot’s Roomba series of sensor-enabled cleaners can be left to their own devices and could easily clean the royal carpets at night. This might also solve a problem that appears to perturb our Queen, who has grumbled that ever since Buckingham Palace has been open to the public, visitors have displayed the annoying habit of ‘shuffling’. Queen Elizabeth explains: “This means that they push all the carpet pile in one direction, so the following year we have to turn all the carpets round so they can push it back the other way.”
It barely seems possible that Apple’s iPad has only been with us since January 2010. Steve Jobs had repeatedly claimed that his company would never launch a tablet: “People want keyboards,” he said. “Tablets appeal to rich guys with plenty of other devices.” But obviously the rich guys wanted more, because in the decade following the launch of the iPad, Apple was to ship more than 500 million units, despite having to compete against its own rapidly evolving product offering, including the iPhone and iPod. According to the Daily Mail, the Queen “has an iPad and a laptop, and she has a personal account on Facebook — though no one outside the Palace knows how many ‘Friends’ she has”. Because she’s of royal blood, Her Majesty has no need to worry (like the rest of us) about where her white charging lead has disappeared to. Keeping the royal devices fully juiced-up is the responsibility of Angela Kelly, the Queen’s personal assistant and senior dresser.
When it comes to her personal vehicles the Queen has a modest outlook, preferring her dark green Range Rover for getting around her estates and a distinctly ageing Jaguar X-Type estate that she’s been known to drive along the M4 between Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. But it appears that in the 2020s royal attitudes to fossil-fuel transportation are changing in line with trends towards more environmentally responsible travel. In 2021, Her Majesty was driven to official engagements in Scotland in a hybrid-electric Range Rover, while for the State Opening of Parliament she ditched the customary horse-drawn State Coach (that is arguably ‘greener’ still) in favour of another hybrid vehicle, although this may have been a nod towards the stripped-back ceremonial aspects of royal attendances during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Eco Experts website, the Queen has the smallest carbon footprint of all the royal family, with a personal tally in 2019 of merely 7.7 tonnes of CO2 released, calculated against six trips (four by private jet and two by train/helicopter). The British Royal Train has three Class 67 locomotives to haul it, all of which run on “biofuel made from waste vegetable oil”.
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