Maggie Philbin on tech, teens and cardigan fear
Tomorrow's World icon was first to say 'I'm on a train'
Interview It could all have been so different. Thanks to a lack of sound career guidance, techie icon Maggie Philbin didn't become an engineer and instead co-presented the BBC's Tomorrow's World.
Philbin wowed a generation of tweens regularly for half an hour a week between 1982 and 1989 with demos of the first fax machine, mobile phone, personal computer, satellite TV and GPS on the Beeb show. This was years before any of them became available in the UK, never mind affordable to the ordinary consumer or a basic tool relied upon by business.
Philbin's enthusiasm combined with her breezy explanations of complicated and esoteric ideas and devices won an audience of geeks in waiting. Mention Philbin's name today, and the eyes of Tomorrow's World fans flicker with instant recognition and tales of inspiration.
"I was at Cisco talking to their engineers and they said the reason they did engineering was because of watching me on Tomorrows' World! That was a fabulous thing to hear," Philbin told The Reg during a recent interview.
Philbin: engineering's loss was Tomorrow's World's gain
Yet Philbin might never have become a TV presenter at all if she'd followed her dream of becoming a vet, caring for sick and wounded animals. Fortunately for us, "she wasn't brilliant" at chemistry and instead focused on arts at school, which led to work on TV on Saturday mornings' Multi-Coloured Swap Shop with Noel Edmonds and Co then eventually to Tomorrow's World. Fortunately for us, at school, nobody cultivated latent skills that might lead her into engineering.
"The fact is, I was very strong at physics or maths [but] nobody ever said engineering - the idea of engineering was never mentioned," Philbin recalls of those days growing up during the analogue days of the late 1960s. "I've never lost that subject of the road less travelled."
The BBC killed Tomorrow's World in 2003 after 38 years and long after Philbin moved on, but she retains a passion for knowledge combined with the belief in the power of technology that helped make her name. While still a presenter for the BBC's Inside Out and working on radio, she's now channelling her interests and enthusiasm through TeenTech, which she helped launch in 2008 and last month registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC).
The objective is to introduce teens to science, technology and engineering and kindle their interests. TeenTech hosts events around the country - 10 are planned for 2012 - where teenagers can conduct experiments, handle technology, and meet real-life boffins, programmers and engineers. TeenTech is co-sponsored by Google and has drawn participation from IBM, Cisco and Sony.
Philbin created TeenTech because she thinks the British education system is not preparing kids for a place in a changing world where the baton's slipping to India and China. "The way we are educating them is as though we're still back in the Victorian age," told us during an interview.
"I set up TeenTech because I spoke at so many conferences about this issue that I was fed up with the sound of my own voice. I want to do something to make a difference."
Philbin is especially keen to get more girls interested in science, engineering and technology, leading to more women landing careers in fields that are famously overpopulated by men.
As such, Philbin last month joined other women of geekery and innovation to celebrate Ada Lovelace at an event organized by BCSWomen. Lovelace was the 19th century mathematician who collaborated with Charles Babbage on the development of his analytical engine, translating documents into English from Italian and adding additional notes that helped Babbage's work. Lovelace is nowadays widely celebrated in the computing world, feted even as the first ever programmer, and Lovelace Day was created in 2009 to celebrate the achievements of other women working in technology.
Philbin blames the lack of role models for not inspiring more girls and persuading them a career in tech is right. Role models are important, she contends, because that's how people are influenced. The idea of going into schools with TeenTech and of introducing students who work in tech "is really important."
When it comes to role models and Philbin, the former first lady of BBC science got lucky: her dad, an accountant working for the Co-op, not only had a computer, he also happened to really love technology. He even had a reel-to-reel tape machine. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era when the first electronic and digital gadgets were coming into the home and starting to help make people's lives easier. Philbin says she was excited by the elegance of the first Sinclair calculator and admits a soft spot for the beauty of the ZX80.
The love of "stuff" evolved into a fascination for the power of technology and devices able to transform our lives and empower us.
Like many of us learning about science at such a young age, Philbin's passion got her in hot water with her mum and dad. But the trouble didn't result from misusing a Thomas Salter chemistry kit; it came following the advice of Tomorrow's World's first presenter, the stately Raymond Baxter. An avid Tomorrow's World fan since it started in 1965, Philbin had been glued to an episode where Baxter had explained how applying a special type of paste to your TV's screen would eliminate reflections from the sun. Inspired, Philbin smeared toothpaste all over the screen of her parents' TV.
"I got into a lot of trouble," she recalls.
Role models are needed for technology because there exist some entrenched negative perceptions about the kinds of people who occupy jobs in this field that deter many from investigating careers. Those perceptions? Tech is full of boring, cardigan-wearing geeks who work alone.
Beware geeks wearing cardigans
"It's hard to believe that the old images of people who work in tech still persist ... although 'geek' is becoming the new good, girls don't want to be part of that," Philbin said. "When you go to schools after TeenTech it's shattering to hear these girls say I didn't think women would want to do jobs like that."
Philbin reckons she got lucky with Tomorrow's World because it gave her what young girls miss: the opportunity to meet first-hand the people and experience how diverse science and technology can be.
"I was lucky to meet so may inspiring people at the sharp end of their respective professions; you want to find a way to share that with young women," she said.
Role models for women do exist of course, especially when it comes to computing. From history, we can cite the six pioneering women mathematicians employed by the US government during WWII to program the first general-purpose computer that ran at "electronic speed", called Electrical Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) and designed to calculate missile trajectories. Men in uniform ran the show and the women brought into this male-dominated hierarchy were nicknamed dismissively the "computers" by the brass. The last of the six ENIAC women, Jean Bartik, passed away in May.
More recently there's been Turing award winner professor Barbara Liskov. The first woman in the US to receive a PhD from a computer science department (the University of Stanford in 1968) her work on the CLU and Argus languages formed the basis of Ada, C++, Java and C#.
Coming bang up to do-date there's Google's vice president of location and local Marissa Mayer and open sourcer Danese Cooper from the tech side. From the business end of operations there's IBM's newly named president and chief executive Virginia M. Rometty, former eBay CEO - now leading Hewlett-Packard - Meg Whitman, ex-Autodesk and Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz and Oracle's chief financial officer and president Safra Katz among many more.
Maybe the real problem is these stories aren't communicated to those outside of tech; or maybe it's because they are seen as irrelevant because they come from the WWII era or America and not from today's Blighty.
Either way, their stories aren't breaking into mainstream where they are needed to help challenge those out-dated notions held about people working in tech. So, TeenTech is putting real technologists in front of teens.
Brian Cox: the face of teen science inspiration?
"That's the whole thing around TeenTech," Philbin says, "trying to correct the perception and show them the cool opportunities ... [that] there are other women and to show that the blokes can be fun and who you'd want to go to the pub with."
Also, it's important to show how working in technology is a creative pursuit and that you could be effecting a change. "Those words like 'teamwork' and 'creativity' and 'making a difference' are important because that's the thing many young girls say they want to do. If anything makes a difference technology does - it's got to be put into that kind of context," Philbin says.
The story of the ENIAC women would surely count as an example of teamwork at it's best.
Arguably, the closest we have to a role model today is Professor Brian Cox, the mopsy haired physicist who works on the CERN atom-smasher project and who also fronted the BBC's Wonders of the Solar System. Cox is credited with making physics cool at school leading to a surge in applicants for physics and astronomy courses at university. Cox's wife, TV presenter Gia Milinovich, will appear with Philbin at the BCSWomen event.
If there's a side-effect to the Cox factor, it's that we could end up with a generation of physicists and astronomers - leaving other disciplines ignored.
One way of channelling teenagers is to have them engage with the technologies they already know and use, like smart phones.
"Young teenagers don't make the connection between the technology they are using and the fact they could be creating it," Philbin said. "We have these kids we have turned into consumers of the latest technology, but we are not giving them the inspiration or the tools to develop it."
It's the emphasis on creating new consumers rather than turning kids into makers of technology Philbin calls "the black side" of the industry.
"The darker side is the whole update business, where you buy an iPad and within 12 months the iPad 2 has come out, and then guess what..." she trails off.
"That throw-away attitude to technology winds me up because it's so short sighed in terms of resources and the environment ... I resist the temptation to upgrade my phone every year - that is the black side of tech. I had a TV in my house that was 20 years old and it was my dad who said 'get rid of that TV' - but it still worked perfectly. Now I have my slick black screen, but it really hurt getting rid of my TV."
Philbin is critical of the UK's national curriculum for not playing its part in connecting our teens to tech and turning them from a generation of consumers into makers. She is positive about a potential change that could lead to software programming being taught at GCSE and A-level grade, shifting away from simple "computer literacy."
"That's just the start," Philbin says.
The Simon Cowell factor
"If you have the right skills, that idea doesn't have to remain on a Post-It note, that idea can make you a fortune but you have to have the right skills to recognize this isn't going to work or you have the skills to deliver it, or to know who is the person to go to. We just need to do more because the kids have such very, very deep rooted interests in that whole area and by the time they come to be 14 or 15 they are being switched off, and I think it's a shame."
Practical skills and role models can help the vacuum currently being filled by Simon Cowell, with his brand of Atlantic-hopping TV programs like X-Factor and Idol. "You'd be appalled if you go into some schools, and the kids of dreaming of being famous and that's their going to be their get out of jail card," Philbin says.
This contrasts with like India and China, which are fast closing the gap on the west in terms of raw student numbers and of pushing the envelope on innovation in everything from chips to space flight.
"There [India and China] you have a culture where being a engineer and technologist is something you want to aim at. We have got to get much sharper."
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.
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.
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. ®