Land of the Pi People: England’s Bold Attempt to Revive Its Tech Industry

Episode 7: Once a computing pioneer, England has struggled to remain relevant in tech. Now, thanks to a handful of booming products, a revival appears to be on the way.

By Ashlee Vance | September 28, 2016

 

In 1943, England appeared poised to become a computing superpower. A team of engineers working at Bletchley Park built something called Colossus, the first programmable, electronic computer. Filled with vacuum tubes, the room-size machine whirred away day and night working to crack coded German messages during World War II and did a remarkably good job. Thousands of lives were saved thanks to Colossus, which helped end the war.

A replica of Colossus
A replica of Colossus.
Source: Bloomberg

Colossus emerged after decades of deep thinking by inventors trying to come up with a working computer. In the 1830s, the Cambridge-trained mathematician Charles Babbage built the “difference engine,” a mechanical proto-computer that could churn through an algorithm with the turn of a crank. Zip forward a hundred years, and Alan Turing, another Cambridge mathematician and a Bletchley Park hero, described for the first time how a more general purpose computer could be programmed to solve an incredible array of problems. These intellectual underpinnings, combined with machines such as Colossus, should have left England ready to capitalize on the electronics and computing revolution that followed over the next couple of decades.

Instead, England ceded its computing lead to the U.S. in rapid fashion. Eniac (for Electronic Numerical Integrator & Computer) came to life in Pennsylvania in 1946 as the first true general purpose computer, many more American-made machines followed, and the U.S. never looked back.

David Pride's Raspberry Pi robot
David Pride's Raspberry Pi robot.
Source: Bloomberg

In this episode of Hello World, I head to England to find out what sapped the country’s computing momentum and how it’s now fighting to inject new life into its technology industry. The trip starts out in Bletchley Park, where we see the Colossus computers in action and learn about their postwar fate. From there, it’s off to Cambridge, the heart of England’s technology scene. I hang out with learned cows and artificial intelligence whizzes, bike past Newton’s famed apple tree (at least a reasonable replica of it), and go punting with the inventor of the Raspberry Pi computer. From Cambridge, I head off to the Cotswolds and the headquarters of Dyson to see its latest creations. And then I travel to London to check out some startups and whine about Brexit while drinking the world’s most exotic cocktails at the Langham Hotel.

Ashlee gets his hair styled by a the $400 Supersonic hair dryer
Left: Dyson's $400 Supersonic hair dryer; Right: The Supersonic's miniature turbine.
Source: Bloomberg

As the episode shows, England has a handful of tremendous technology success stories. With its headquarters in Cambridge, ARM has become the dominant chip designer of this era. Its products sit inside almost every smartphone and in millions of other products, from cars and printers to nanosatellites and smart home appliances. The Raspberry Pi has turned into a computing phenomenon, as well, with hobbyists and inventors around the globe using the tiny $35 computer to build all manner of devices. Because of Cambridge, England has also remained a major research hub, with such biotech companies and software giants as Microsoft setting up labs in town and doing breakthrough work in areas that include artificial intelligence.

Overall, however, England continues to underperform in technology. London’s startup scene has some vibrancy, but many of the companies mimic applications already built in Silicon Valley and Asia. England’s deep cynical streak runs counter to the hype and self-promotion that seems to fuel technology startups from Sunnyvale to Shenzhen, and entrepreneurs have been reluctant to take as many risks.

Kids work on building Kano computers.
Kids work on building Kano computers.
Source: Bloomberg

The good news for England is that things such as the Raspberry Pi have encouraged a younger generation to try its hand at computer science. And money from ARM’s wealthy founders and investors has poured into Cambridge, fueling another wave of startups. If there’s another Babbage or Turing lurking out there, he or she should have all the resources and encouragement necessary to put England back on the computing map.

Watch more from Hello World



Episode 4: Iceland
Iceland’s Cutting-Edge Tech Thrives in a Punishing Terrain

Episode 5: Mojave Desert
Machines, Madness and Freedom in the Desert

Episode 6: Australia
Australia's Tech Underground Comes to Life