It is very easy to think of older people as passive recipients of our new ideas and innovations and to forget that many of them sowed the seeds of the great technological advances which we are exploiting today.
My father, Michael Aldrich is a case in point. Now in his 70s, when he was in his late 30s, he connected a domestic television by telephone line to a real-time transaction processing computer and invented what he called teleshopping. Today it is called online shopping, e-commerce and e-business and is a fast growing world-wide multi-billion dollar business.
At that time, pre-internet, the idea of being able to shop from home was at best fanciful. As he explains : “Back in 1979 the first wave of personal computers had appeared. There was not much useful software but there was sufficient evidence of potential to enable many people to ask ‘what if.’ One idea being considered in academe and among futurists was teleshopping. The dream had to include an affordable and usable computer device in the home. At the time the personal computers were expensive and distinctly nerdish. Also some relatively inexpensive telecommunication link in the home was needed together with networked computers that could handle very high volumes of transactions being processed simultaneously”.
The opportunity came in with the arrival of a new television : “Early in 1979 a 26” colour television was delivered to my office… With it came a note that asked me for my assessment of it. The Rediffusion Group manufactured TVs so it wasn’t unusual to be given prototypes for testing… During that time we learned that it was a prototype of a new TV designed for a new service to be offered by the Post Office..called ‘Prestel’.
Initial research on the system proved unfruitful and the television languished in a corner of the office for some time until engineer, Peter Champion asked if he could strip it and find out what was inside. What he found was a chip set with a chip modem, a character generator and an auto-dialler that could hold four telephone numbers. This was a television which could communicate
My father explains his eureka moment as follows : “In the summer of 1979,.. my wife and I were walking our Labrador, Tessa. We were relaxing, talking as ever about our children, just the usual family domestic things and I was thinking that we could use some assistance with the boring weekly supermarket shopping expedition. All of a sudden I thought about the television and hooking it up to the supermarket and getting the supermarket to deliver the groceries. I told her my idea and we rushed back to the house and I started thinking, writing and planning.
It was simple. We had a domestic TV that could communicate, a computer that not only could handle transaction processing from multiple users but it could also communicate (network) with other computers…. Using an inexpensive domestic TV with a remarkably simple human interface, it could be used by anyone without training. With its ability to dial into any computer via a normal domestic telephone line and, using a standard communications and human interface, it could be used for multiple applications. It wasn’t restricted to talking to just one computer for one function. It had genuine open market independent teleshopping capabilities. And you could still watch TV! It was hugely exciting…”
To celebrate World Intellectual Property Day 2012, the Intellectual Property Office is asking people to vote for their favourite British ‘Visionary Innovator’. Oddly, my father is in competition with Simon Cowell! So, online shopping or the Xfactor? You choose! To vote, CLICK HERE
Image and quotes courtesy of the Michael Aldrich Archive