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Maggie Philbin on tech, teens and cardigan fear

Tomorrow's World icon was first to say 'I'm on a train'

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Wind-farm worries

She illustrates her frustration with an example: hundreds of vacancies are opening up at a wind farm assembly plant in East Yorkshire, but she worries many spots will likely be filled by engineers from overseas while the kids in and around Hull will stay stuck on the sidelines for lack of the right training and inspiration.

"Companies are doing stuff, they are not waiting for education to catch up," Philbin says.

"The kids need to be aware that this is what tomorrow is going to be like and these are the skills you will need to prosper and do well because there's a hell of a lot of competition coming from all over the globe and we are part of the global economy."

It's one thing to cultivate the talent; what happens next is another matter.

Maggie Philbin with machine2

Overalls and the machine: Philbin on a 1980s' Tomorrow's World location

Watch old episodes of Tomorrow's World and you'll be struck by the way that the UK has teetered on the brink of technology greatness only to pull back: demonstrating the then brand-new idea of satellite broadcasting in 1989, Philbin showed off BSB, a company that was trading heavily on its square antenna - which it used instead of a dish - and that it was promised would deliver wide-screen and high-definition TV. Alas, at the time of Tomorrow's World, the Squarial was not quite ready and eventually BSB was swallowed by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch's red-blooded Sky Television, creating BSkyB.

Ten years before, in 1979, Michael Rod ambling through a leafy woodland setting showing off a chunky mobile phone prototype that let you connect directly to another phone without an operator.

Built by the Chelmer Institute in Chelmsford the idea was revolutionary and could be crushed only by the fat arse of Whitehall: the General Post Office (GPO) that provided nearly all phone services and handsets in Great Britain during those stateist times saw absolutely no point supporting a private development unless the Home Office freed up some bandwidth, something the Home Office had no intention of doing. The baton passed to Finland.

Philbin readily concedes she's not an expert on attracting angel investors to British technology ideas or addressing the regulatory climate, but counters saying we need to get the culture in place that at least encourages the talent and channels it into jobs.

She does say, however, that British employers have a lot of catching up to do in terms of using technology. They need to provide flexible working conditions, which might help attract more young people and especially girls.

She cites personal experience: having demonstrated the fax machine on Tomorrow's World Philbin bought one of the first commercially devices because it could let her work remotely - faxing scripts to and from the BBC office, while also raising her daughter at home in Newbury, Berkshire. She had to wait for the BBC to catch up and get their own fax before the idea could work, though.

Today the fax has been replaced by things like Drop Box, which lets people collaborate online exchanging documents from different locations, yet many British employers still drag their heels on the subject of letting their staff work from home. Again, the focus is women, who leave the workplace to start families and struggle to return. One of Philbin's projects is the Daphne Jackson Trust, which helps women return to the workplace. "Many companies cultures are still not very friendly towards that [working from home]. They [employees] are still seen as skiving," Philbin says.

Another challenge for the teenagers who answer Philbin's call is that not all their ideas will succeed - tricky in the era of the Simon Cowell rapid rewards plan.

Tomorrow's World previewed plenty of ideas that went on to become successful and these were celebrated when the BBC killed the show. Conveniently forgotten, though, are the literally hundreds of ideas that never panned out. Philbin recalls that after an initial period of enthusiasm for new ideas presenters of Tomorrow's World learned quickly to become more cautious and circumspect. Philbin struggles to remember the failures because there were so many but does recall the electric blanket which claimed to knew where your hot bits were.

Of the many successes, however, Philbin does recall realizing the potential of the fax and the mobile phone that she demonstrated. Philbin can't remember the brands because the BBC went to huge lengths to hide company and product names, applying thick tape on devices where Aunty deemed it appropriate.

Of the fax, though: "I watched, amazed at the way you could send a map from London to America and I thought: 'That is amazing. If it can get a map from London to America can it get a script from London to Newbury' - that was my first thought."

"Hello? I'm on a train!"

As for the first mobile phone, which would have been a Motorola, Philbin reckons she immediately spotted the connection people made with it. She was loaned the handset for a road test before recording her Tomorrow's World segment, and took it on her train journey home from Paddington Station where she received a call from her husband. "I think I was first people to ever to say I was on a train," he says. "The reaction on the carriage was extraordinary. I let people call their families."

Years later, Philbin owns an iPad and a BlackBerry, although she says she loves the iPhone best.

One thing Philbin thought would never catch on was the bar-code reader. Filming her sequence for Tomorrow's World took 40 minutes as the device in question refused to read the bad code. "I couldn't imagine any of the major supermarkets would adopt it," she said.

Make no mistake, Philbin is no fangirl. She doesn't believe in technology for technology's sake and isn't thrilled by some of the fallout from technology. When we spoke on the phone, Philbin admitted to being trapped in email and printer hell as the WiFi connection to her printer had stopped working.

"I love when tech works, I love the joined up quality of it. What I don't like is a WiFi printer that refuses to do anything; that drives me nuts and I get stressed by that," she says.

But Philbin is an enthusiast, and it's fitting that years after Tomorrow's World she's passionate about engaging a new generation. ®

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