Tapping in to high technology's heavyweight history

Published in The Irish Times, 4 November, 2011 An exhibition in Galway pays homage to Ireland’s small role in the history of tech manufacturing, writes  Lenny Antonelli

JUST A month after the death of Steve Jobs, it’s fitting that the first exhibit you see inside Galway’s new National Computer and Communications Museum showcases some of Apple’s most iconic computers, including the original 1984 Macintosh.

“It was the first popular computer to use a graphics interface – to use windows, to use icons and to use a mouse,” curator Brendan Smith says of the first Mac. “There was a little programme on it showing people how to use a mouse.”

Beside it sits an Apple II, one of the world’s first popular desktop computers. On its underside are words rarely seen on computers today: Made in Ireland. Apple opened a factory in Cork in 1981, its first outside the US.

The new museum pays homage to Ireland’s small role in the history of tech manufacturing – among its exhibits are a telephone exchange built in Galway by Nortel, floppy disks made in Limerick by Verbatim, and a 6ft “minicomputer” manufactured here in the 1970s by Digital.

But the museum’s centrepiece is a row of classic computers from the 1970s and 80s, including the famous BBC Micro. The broadcaster launched the machine in 1981 to accompany TV shows on computer education. More than a million were sold, mostly to schools. The machine was designed to link up easily with other devices, such as musical equipment. The bands A-Ha, Depeche Mode and Erasure all used it to compose songs.

Sitting next to the BBC Micro is a rarity: the Dragon, the only desktop computer ever designed and built in Wales. Launched in 1982, the machine flopped partly because its keyboard only had upper-case letters – its manufacturer failed to take heed of the growing demand for word processing.

The Apprentice’s Sir Alan Sugar didn’t make that mistake when he launched the Amstrad CPC, also on display. “He looked at offices full of people, full of secretaries, and what were they using? They were using an electronic typewriter,” Smith says. So in 1984 he launched his computer to the mass market. The range stayed in production for eight years, sold three million units, and sent Sugar on his way to vast wealth.

The museum also charts the history of the the laptop, boasting a 1983 Compaq Portable – a huge and heavy computer dubbed a “luggable” that was only deemed portable because it folded up and had a handle on top.

It also features one of Motorola’s classic 1980s “brick” mobile phones. Smith points out that watching Captain Kirk use a handheld “communicator” in Star Trek inspired Motorola’s Martin Cooper to develop the first mobile phone. Technologies such as the tablet computer and voice translation software were also inspired by the classic sci-fi show.

Space travel, real or fictional, had a heavy influence on early computer games such as Space Invaders and Asteroid. Both can be found in the museum’s retro-gaming area, home to iconic machines such as the Atari and the Sega Mega Drive. The museum runs retro-gaming nights each month and teaches computer programming to kids by showing them how to input and manipulate the code for classic games.

Smith is also expecting delivery of a full-size arcade machine soon. “We’re going to get a school to build up the electronics behind it. It’s not just a museum piece, it will be built by children,” he says. Plans are also afoot for classes for children on building mobile apps. Smith wants the museum to inspire children to become Ireland’s tech innovators of the future.

The museum also charts Ireland’s role in the development of modern communications, from the laying of the first underwater telegraph cable from Valentia Island to Newfoundland, to Guglielmo Marconi’s pioneering work in Ireland on long-distance radio communication. “Marconi’s mother grabbed him, brought him over [from Italy] to London and introduced him to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that she was a part of, being from the Jameson whiskey family,” Smith says.

“He got his seed capital from people like them. She introduced him. Like any Irish mother, she was quite pushy.”

Marconi would go on to develop the first regular wireless telegraph across the Atlantic, between Clifden and Canada.

Radio technology spread rapidly after that, and one engaging display at the museum suggests the world’s first general radio broadcast might have been sent by Irish republicans in Dublin during the Rising on Easter Monday 1916. Before this, transmissions were directed to specific recipients. “They definitely did send out a broadcast, whether anybody picked it up or not, who knows,” Smith says. The group’s message read: “Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country is rising.”

The era of mass broadcast arrived soon after – the museum features classic radios from the 1930s and 50s – and brought huge cultural and social change. Radio stations started catering to a new, youthful audience.

“For the first time you had young people that dressed differently, had different types of hairstyle, different types of social attitudes, and different types of music,” Smith says. “You had young people in Warsaw, in Dublin, in London, in Washington, listening to the same type of music.”

In the 1950s Sony popularised the pocket transistor radio, another of the museum’s artefacts. “The great thing for young people was that it had batteries, it meant that you got away from plugging it into the wall, from the house, from the parents.”

Smith says some of his older students are often intimated by MP3 players and smartphones. “They think it’s totally for young people and that it’s kind of scary.” Then he takes out his 1950s pocket radio. “I say to them that over 50 years ago, you scared the pants off your parents, you were the teenagers at the time listening to anything and everything. Nothing has really changed.”

The National Computer and Communications Museum is in NUI Galway’s Digital Enterprise Research Institute.