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Maggie Thatcher: The Iron Lady who saved us from drab Post Office mobes

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Obituary Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister who worked alongside the world's first business computer and who privatised the UK's phone network, has died. She was 87.

When Britain's Iron Lady came to power in 1979, your average Brit had just one phone, which was fixed to a wall by a wire and connected to a network operated by a national monopoly: the Post Office. If you wanted to buy a phone or install a line, that was the organisation you had to go to.

And that was about to change.

As leader of the ruling Conservative Party, she pledged to slash red tape in the public sector: her mentor and subsequent minister for trade and industry Sir Keith Joseph told her deregulation in the US had liberating effects on the development and availability of technology.

Sir Keith was the architect of Thatcherism. And it was his advice that led to the denationalisation of Blighty's phone system.

By 1980, the chunk of the Post Office that ran the country's telephone network was renamed British Telecom.

(This was the same Post Office that, in the 1970s, snubbed one of the world's first mobile telephones, which was designed by the British Chelmer Institute. The staggering decision to write off the tech, rather than deploy it, cleared the way for the Finns to rule the mobe roost.)

A year later in 1981, Thatcher's British Telecommunications Act put Blighty's phone network firmly on the road to privatisation: by 1984, British Telecommunications plc (now just BT plc) was trading shares, running British Telecom's systems and, crucially, it lost its exclusive ownership of the entire communications market.

From then on, BT bosses had to come up with better technology and services to win customers in the face of fresh competition from private-sector operators - which could offer competing lines, phones and other products.

And lo, Brits can buy wired handsets made by Siemens, Panasonic or NEC; call someone from a field using kit designed by Samsung, Apple, BlackBerry or Nokia; and watch yesterday's TV and browse El Reg over copper phone lines or Virgin Media's fibre optic cable, to name a few names. You can read more about BT's privatisation saga here [PDF].

Kickstarting the startups

It was Thatcher's love for the private sector that also injected a dose of entrepreneurial spirit into Blighty's arm: her belief that anyone could achieve anything with the right idea at the right time appealed to many.

Her eventual low interest rates, axed bureaucracy, and low taxes encouraged British firms. The nation's fledging computer hardware and software makers Acorn, Sage, Sinclair and Amstrad hit their stride in and around Thatcher's reign.

The 1980s British personal computer market was fiercely fought, turbulent and riddled with rotten luck, which partly explains why we're not using Core i5-powered Sinclair machines today. But the biggest success was the ARM team that sprang from Acorn; its low-power RISC processor design is today the planet's most popular embedded processor architecture.

Amstrad founder Lord Alan Sugar, who was one of Thatcher's favourites, tweeted yesterday:

Born in 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, as Margaret Roberts, Thatcher, whose father was a grocer, entered the world of science and technology after leaving school.

She studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, and graduated in 1947; worked for a plastics company; and (legend has it) helped invent soft ice cream as a food scientist in the laboratory of J Lyons - the catering giant that created the world's first business computer, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO).

She became an MP in 1959, and by the time she rose to the top of the Tory party, she had set her sights on privatising Britain's shipbuilding and aerospace operations. Ex-premier Harold Macmillan, a leading Conservative, warned she was selling the family silver.

But telecoms was arguably the most successful of Thatcher's deregulations. Without her personal belief and her change of the laws on regulation and private ownership, Britain's comms network would have remained a closed market - with no alternative handsets and equipment and no competing communications services to keep the Post Office on its toes.

Blighty's phone, and ultimately internet, connectivity may well have been in a completely different state without her intervention; we could all be using drab Post Office-issued handsets that attempt to outdo kit from global giants.

Some will counter that deregulation of telecoms and the rise of the computer entrepreneur were inevitable. But it was under Thatcher, who was ousted in 1990, that Britain witnessed its first semiconductor-powered hardware explosion, sowing the seeds for tech startups and the consumption of home electronics by the masses. ®

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