The author: Mike Hally

I've been a journalist for 15 years, and that was a second career after even longer as an engineer and a brief interlude running a research project. I've always had a range of interests outside work -- theatre, film, motor sport, voluntary groups, campaigning organisations, cycling, Open University studies, fell-walking and so on. Much of what I've done as a journalist and now a writer has drawn on that experience, and that's certainly true of "Electronic Brains".
As an electronic engineer in the mid-70s I became fascinated by the possibilities of microprocessors, and amazed that most of my colleagues didn't share that enthusiasm (with one exception). I began to realise that there were clear "generations" of electronic engineers, the valve specialists, the transistor whizzes, the integrated circuit brigade and now the microprocessor evangelists. Valve specialists sort of understood transistors by thinking of them in terms of valves, and they always wanted to know what was inside an integrated circuit. And so on. And the two biggest problems were that microprocessors were programmable -- "hardware engineers can't program" -- and engineers were naturally sceptical about all the wild claims that microprocessors would change our lives (they did though).
I well remember the mundane incident that gave us a glimpse of the revolution in prospect. For year we had the old hot drinks machines that had large plastic buttons labeller "coffee, white, no sugar" or whatever. They dispensed a foul liquid indistinguishable from the emulsion used to cool milling machines, and were thoroughly unreliable. One day a new machine appeared, very flashy, with a keypad instead of labelled buttons. You had to key in say 1-3-8 to get your sugar-free white coffee. Many people were baffled by this simple exercise in programming, and astonished at the realisation there was an entire computer in there. Before long we all had home computers.
Spool forward to the mid-90s. I'd left engineering and re-trained as a journalist. I'd also come to realise how many of the journalists I really respected had done history degrees originally, and that there was a good reason for that. History at university level demands that you test and question everything, go back to primary source material whenever possible and treat secondary sources with particular caution. I wanted that discipline.
I'd done an Open University degree during the 70s, revelling in the freedom (then rare in this country) to mix courses from different faculties. So I studied social sciences, psychology, electronics, biology, drama and got my ordinary degree over about five years. I always intended to go on to do honours, but the years passed. In the late 90s I returned to OU study, concentrating on history courses and research projects. It was exactly what I wanted, I loved every minute of it, and eventually got a First.
During those studies I'd also done some research for a proposed BBC programme on the Manchester Baby, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first successful run. Our proposal wasn't commissioned but the exercise revived my interest in computer history and prompted me to start looking for other stories from that period. I was particularly puzzled by the almost complete absence of any reference to the first Soviet computers.
By the year 2000, things were coming together. With three other freelance producers, we set up Pennine Productions and one of my first proposals to Radio 4 was a series about the early computer pioneers. I wanted to combine my newly-learned oral history techniques with my radio skills, and I was fortunate to have Mark Whitaker, an academic historian turned journalist, as presenter and expert historian. We came up with a proposal that would be aimed at the general listener, not particularly technical, more the stories of the people who made the early computers, and a slice of social history too. That became "Electronic Brains", the radio series, first broadcast in autumn 2001.
Although well received it was frustrating, as is often the case with radio, that there is so little you can get into 15 minutes. I knew there was much more material out there, and other stories from the same era. So I was delighted when Granta asked me if I thought there was a book in the subject. I was hardly going to say "no".
After a bit of a hiatus, I started work seriously in the autumn of 2003. A very fine October and November as I remember. I particularly recall that by mid-afternoon each day my head would be so full of "stuff" that the only solution was to go off and walk round the nearby reservoir for an hour or so, in the autumn sunshine, and let it all sort itself out. Thus refreshed I could come back and do a few more hours.
I delivered the first draft in April 2004 and the next twelve months were filled with re-structuring, re-writing, searching out pictures and getting permissions, technical review, copy-editing, indexing, publicity, etc. And of course carrying on with my other roles as radio producer, motor sports photographer and so on.
Now as I write this at Easter 2005, I've got the first precious final production copy in its shiny cover, a couple of very good reviews have appeared, and the question now is "will anyone buy it?"
Mike Hally, 24/3/05