Theatre: Tomorrow's World Today

Some mornings, pushing a soft, plastic button and smiting an ergonomically- designed computer keyboard in order to log on (clocking in, so to speak) is as much 'work' as a person can bring themselves to do until they've had a stiff cup of tea and read the job ads. This five-second process is as unremarkable a daily routine as smiling at the receptionist or hanging up your coat. Had you been one of the first schoolchildren to learn how to use a computer, however, you may appreciate the effort that has gone into making it such a simple process.

In 1969, Tomorrow's World showed a film about four boys exploring new territory at school. They are with a teacher and, at first sight, appear to be tinkering with the generator in the school boiler room. What's going on? Who gave them permission to operate heavy industrial machinery? Surely if the school caretaker caught them (no doubt conforming to the janitorial stereotype of humourless despot), he'd have them all carpeted before the Headmaster.

But no, there is nothing untoward in this scenario. Quite the opposite. These eager chaps are among the first British schoolchildren to be taught on computers, and what looks like a reconstruction of the Titanic's engine- room is in fact the assembled components of Nellie, their school computer. While the teacher - tweed of jacket and wild of hair, let's assume he's the science master - crouches bug-eyed in front of a control deck as vast as that of the Starship Enterprise, his scholars busy themselves with the then highly complex process of logging on:

"The keys are in, Sir!"

"Keys in. Can you check the oil level please, Harry?"

"Oil OK, sir."

"Right, check disc temperature please, Malcolm."

Malcolm jams his head inside a cupboard to squint at a temperature gauge. "All fine, Sir!" A third boy speaks into an intercom: "Alternator house here - everything OK?"

The teacher bellows back "Prepare for standby!" and a fourth boy flicks some switches on the control panel. Levers are pulled, a noise like that of an industrial vacuum cleaner fills the room and the hard disk drones to life. This being the dawn of the computer age, Nellie's range of functions is somewhat limited, but the boys seem very impressed by her aptitude for Noughts & Crosses.

One imagines these technological pioneers - who grew up with diodes and transistors - thirty years on, wistfully watching their own offspring learning by computer. "Huh! Computers weren't so easy to use in my day. Why, it often took Simpkins Minor an hour just to grease the cranking handle..."

But while the budding progeny of Bill Gates undoubtedly benefit from being able to produce graphically perfect maps and charts for their GCSE Geography homework in this manner, console yourself with another thought - attempting to illustrate the functioning of the Norwegian leather industry is just as boring with an Apple Powerbook as it was with a packet of felt- tip pens.

'Tomorrow's World', tonight at 7.30 on BBC1. Catch 'Tomorrow's World Plus' on the UK Horizons channel.

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