27 June 2011 2 Comments

The Mini Reith

The Mini Reith

Life is sometimes very surreal.



If you were listening to R4’s Broadcasting House, you’ll know that my name was used as code to protect the identity of pro-democracy leader  Aung San Suu Kyi who is delivering this year’s Reith Lectures. The lectures have run since 1948 and the BBC have recently made the archive of all 240 recordings available. They make for stimulating listening.

Broadcasting House invited me to give my own mini Reith lecture on Sunday morning.You can listen to it here.Mini-Reith Lecture – Who Wants To Be An Engineer? (mp3)

If you want to find out more about the events I’ve set up to help young people understand more about the real opportunities available in science and engineering have a look at the TeenTech website. And if you’d prefer to read the lecture, here it is :

Who wants to be an Engineer?

Four years ago I asked a class of thirteen year olds if they could name a contemporary scientist, engineer or technologist. The only name they came up with was Einstein. Except for one young boy who suggested  “Charles Cabbage?”

They weren’t proud of that ignorance. They went on to explain that though they enjoyed going to the Science Museum, the visits left them none the wiser about what modern scientists and in particular modern engineers actually did.

They don’t know, their parents don’t know and nor do their teachers.

It’s not surprising because I’m willing to bet that even if you’re a high flying engineer at Google you have only a hazy idea about what’s going on at BMW or Virgin trains.

When I was 13, I wanted to be a vet or a doctor because they were the only options visible to me. It’s been my years as a technology reporter, barrel rolling across the sky in a Hawker Hunker trying out the latest anti-G suit, watching the delicate mesh of a stent expand to clear a blocked artery or demonstrating an electric blanket that knew where your hot bits were  – it’s this which has helped me appreciate the kaleidoscopic technology landscape and the myriad career opportunities available at every level

Like most teenagers,  the ones I interviewed were fascinated by gadgets and one boy suggested it would be helpful to have information on the packaging to tell them more about the inventors and the challenges they’d overcome. After all, as he said, “ Even on adverts, we see footballers but we never see scientists”

This was the reason I’ve set up events where young people get to handle not only the world’s shiniest technology but most importantly meet the engineers who created it.

We cut through the clichés., teenagers can see for themselves that it’s possible to be an engineer and a woman or a scientist and have a decent haircut. As they work on their own designs for the ultimate snowboard or a mobile phone app they see why maths and physics are a passport to creativity and can help you develop very cool ideas.


An ideas wall gives them the freedom to show off thoughts for the technology they’d like to see at the Olympic Games in 2050

“A drug that takes away all steroids and other drugs so no-one can cheat” suggested Samantha and Fraser,

Ben thought that the events could be made litter free if  “when packaging on food is removed, it’s drawn towards a bin using magnetic particles.

And Adam had a challenging thought “All ball events will be competed with an invisible ball, to make it harder”

The most valuable prizes are experiences. Last week 15 winners spent a day learning about the technology behind 3D cameras and cinemas. They then watched a 3D film. Whenever they watch films in the future it will be with completely different eyes

We talk endlessly about innovation but we have to do more to inspire teenagers with fresh accurate images of the contemporary workplace. The vast majority of jobs, even in the near future will be applications of science, technology, engineering and maths .

But at the moment a generation sit in chains, shackled to the false hope of instant success, and a magical belief that X factor, the lottery or marrying a footballer will transform their lives.

Steve Jobs says that innovation is just about joining the dots. It’s down to all of us to help young people understand how the right knowledge and the right skills will help them recognise those dots . And will give them the power to transform all our lives, not just their own.

15 May 2011 Comments Off

Domesday Reloaded

Domesday Reloaded

In 1986 I demonstrated an ambitious project on Tomorrow’s World. Over a  million people (mainly schoolchildren) took part and contributed over 147,819 pages of text and pictures about their local area to create the BBC Domesday Project – a pair of interactive videodiscs to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book. If you brace yourself for 80s hair and shoulder pads, you can watch the original piece here

The equipment needed to play the discs cost over £4000, so it’s not surprising that only a few schools and libraries made the investment. This thorough, yet  idiosyncratic record of life in 1986 is now available to explore and update on the BBC Domesday Reloaded site.

Back in the 80’s we showed how it was possible to “search” and find the information and invited viewers to tell us where they lived so we could track down pictures of their local area. In today’s internet world, it may seem extraordinary but people were delighted to see their village shop come up on the screen.


A Domesday system at the Vintage Computer Festival 2010, Bletchley, UK

There were two discs in the Domesday Project package: the Community Disc and the National Disc. The Community disc is map-based and shows Britain as seen by the people who live there while the National disc is topic based and provides an overview of Britain. The country was divided  4 km wide by 3 km blocks, based on Ordnance Survey grid references. Each block could contain up to 3 photographs and a number of short reflections on life in that area. More detailed maps of key urban areas and blocks of 40×30 km and regional views were captured, allowing “zoom-out” and “zoom-in” functions.

If you check out the block containing York Minster, you won’t find a picture of  the cathedral , the three photographs show a lady ironing clothes, a row of terraced houses and a street scene.

Andy Finney ,who worked on the original project once wrote, “If I personally have  one regret about Domesday, it is that many of the people who contributed to it never got to see the results of their efforts”

He wasn’t alone in thinking this. A 2002 piece in The Observer reflected on the irony of how the original Domesday Book could still be read after 925 years, whilst the then 15 yr old one could not.

He and the team must be thrilled to see their project breathe again, as we all have the chance not only to look back to 1986 but to update all those pictures. And who knows, maybe York Minster will get a look in.

17 March 2011 Comments Off



Today I’ll stand up in front of teenagers from 30 schools at the Madejski Stadium in Reading and introduce them to some of the coolest people working in Science, Engineering and Technology. With fabulous support from world class technology companies, TeenTech gives them the  chance to handle the very latest gadgets, carry out experiments and see the reality of the 21st century workplace.

Four years ago, I stood up to deliver a conference keynote and realised I was fed up with talking about the need to help teenagers see opportunities in Science and Technology , the time had come to do something myself.

Cartman_sI went into schools, chatted to thirteen year olds and realised that although they enjoyed going to places like the Science Museum, what they really wanted was to meet real engineers and scientists to see first hand what they did and what they were like as people. When the Open University ran their “Draw a Scientist” as part of their “Invisible Witness” project in 2008, age old stereotypes were very much alive. Although teenagers love using technology, not many understand they could be designing and creating that technology themselves. I wanted to change that.

The result was TeenTech, a unique collaboration between companies, organisations like the IoD, IET, Education Business Partnerships and myself.

picture-74So TeenTech sets out to give young teenagers a chance to meet the brilliant people I feel I was so lucky to meet on on Tomorrow’s World. Inspiring, creative and often working on wild and impossible ideas I never believed would ever see the light of day. They’ll meet engineers from BBC R&D responsible for  HDTV and 3D and now working on surround video and projects like Piero, which will enhance our enjoyment of the Olympic Games. They can find out what it’s like to work at Google, how to come up with ideas for home technology with Sky, JVC or Sony ,what it means to be a BT apprentice or develop new products for Proctor & Gamble.

picture-80This will be the third TeenTech we’ve done at Reading and we’re now going to run the event elsewhere. In July and September there will be TeenTechs in Humberside and Kent. So if you’d like your company to be involved with helping young people understand what they need to do if they want to engineers their own future, do get in touch.

Meanwhile , we are indebted to the time and energy the companies put into the event, thinking carefully about how to bring their science and technology to life. So a huge thanks to the following for their superb support. They’ll all need to lie in a darkened room for a week afterwards but they’ll know they’ve made a difference

3M, AWE, Berkshire College of Agriculture, BT, BBC, British Computer Society, CADline, Foster Wheeler, Google, IET, Intel, Imago, JVC, Oracle, PepsiCo, Proctor&Gamble, RAF,Research in Motion, Scottish& Southern,Sky, Sony, Specsavers, Syngenta, The Smallpiece Trust, University of Reading, UK Timber Foundation

23 February 2011 4 Comments



I said goodbye to one of the most important people in my life this week. Rosemary Gill, the brilliantly intelligent and wickedly rebellious woman who invented SwapShop and Saturday Morning Television, died on Tuesday evening.

I owe everything to Rose- not only my BBC career – but also, because she introduced me to my future husband, my daughter who is named after her.

Unusually for people working in TV, she was completely self-effacing, refusing to take  credit for her sheer genius in putting together the first truely interactive television show.

swap shop last show pic 8x10

Typically, in this picture, taken on the set of the very last Swap Shop, you can hardly see her but she’s the woman just to the left of John and behind Noel’s hair.

There’ll be official obituaries in The Times and in Ariel; Rose’s career went right back to the days of live drama at Alexandra Palace and she was hugely respected in the BBC.

But I first met her in April 1978, when she interviewed me for that fabulous job on Saturday mornings. The only problem was I hadn’t the faintest idea what the job was, as Rose had deliberately placed a box numbered ad , not mentioning the BBC or indeed the name of the show. Years later, I asked her why she’s taken a punt on that raw student from Manchester and she said, “Well I asked you one question about your boots and you talked for twenty minutes, so I thought you’d probably be alright”

She was astute, intuitive, with an enormous sense of fun. The planning meetings took place on Friday lunchtimes over a bottle of Frascati and the show was completely unscripted . Only the first 30 seconds, with it’s complicated series of ten second cues to trails were ever rehearsed. Noel remembers the way she would walk across the studio floor, giving him the thumbs up no matter how badly that sequence had run. He suspects she then tore up to the gallery to give some unfortunate a complete bollocking.

She was an inspiration. And over the last thirty years has been a very great friend.

Thank you Rose,for everything.