Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Dear Sir Patrick

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

Dear Sir Patrick,

In the summer of 1973, when I was seventeen years old, I attended a sixth form conference in Oxfordshire (at a school in Banbury, I think).  I only remember two things from that event: dancing to a live band in the evening and listening to you talking to us about the future.

In general my memory of  your talk is rather hazy, but I’m pretty sure that you spoke about the Apollo programme and the future of space exploration. The last humans to walk on the moon – indeed, the last humans to leave Earth orbit – had done so the previous December and we all knew you from the BBC’s coverage of Apollo. 

One point you made stuck in my mind, however.  You said that when we were your age – you were 50 at the time and I am now 53 – there would be computers “no larger than a packet of cigarettes” which would fit in our shirt pockets.  

I wish I could remember what you thought these computers would be able to do.  I expect we imagined that they would be like sophisticated calculators – one of my friends owned an early Hewlett Packard scientific calculator, which seemed pretty astonishing to us the time.  

Now, thirty six years later, I know the answer.  I have just been standing in our garden looking at the night sky with a shirt-pocket sized computer as my guide.  

The computer in question can do many things. I can use it to  read messages from friends and colleagues; it can read any of the billions of pages from something called the World Wide Web; it can take photographs and videos and transmit them to others.  It can also, thanks to someting called “Google Sky Maps” guide me around the night sky.  If I ‘point’ it at the sky it shows me the names of the stars and planets at which I’m looking – just now it picked out Saturn.  It is really quite amazing – a pocket sized planetarium.  I can even point it at the earth below me and it shows me what I could see if was standing on the other side of the planet.  

My pocket sized computer also, incidentally, can be used to make telephone calls.  Quite astonishing.

Very many thanks for talking to us, and inspiring us, way back then.

Best regards
Andrew Cooper

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