Page last updated at 03:16 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 04:16 UK

Tomorrow's World classics go online

tomorrow's world

Man speaks morse code to computer and other classic Tomorrow's World moments

Maggie Philbin
by Maggie Philbin
ex-host of Tomorrow's World

As footage of the weird and wonderful inventions that defined Tomorrow's World is released online from the BBC archives, it is a good time to remember how much of the technology we now take for granted was demonstrated for the very first time on Tomorrow's World.

The home computer, the mobile telephone and the compact disc all made their debut on the show.

I would love to say I recognised their significance immediately but often the technology was fragile or incomplete - a mixture of space age and Stone Age - and the real potential was hidden.

"This may not look like a very futuristic car," I declared in 1986, bouncing along in a very ordinary looking saloon, "but there's a computer with a bubble memory in the boot."

Twenty years later, sat-navs would be the must-have Christmas present but, at the time, reading a map seemed a much better option.

Maggie Philbin, Howard Stableford, Peter Macann and Judith Hann
The programme brought science's cutting edge to the living room

The first commercial fax machine, the first digital camera, the first car navigation system and the first supermarket barcode reader passed through my hands.

As did the fishing rod that lit up in the dark, the washing line that sang when it rained and the electric blanket that knew where your hot bits were.

Rather curiously, I demonstrated the first digital camera without the actual camera.

I cannot remember whether it was not built or whether it failed to arrive.

Either way, that did not get in the way of explaining how the images could be captured and then downloaded onto your computer.

A computer, which at the time, the vast majority of the audience did not possess.

Fax frenzy

I do remember being very excited by the fax machine.

If I could get a map from the studio to America "down an ordinary phone line" then I could get scripts from my home in Newbury to the Tomorrow's World office.

Howard Stableford
Many inventions became household names, others, not so much

As soon as they became available, I went out and bought one.

The supermarket barcode reader made less of an impression.

The item had to be pre-recorded behind screens; I think because BBC Health and Safety had identified the laser as a potential hazard.

As I attempted to swipe a tin of peas for the 30th time, I remember thinking supermarkets would be totally insane to even consider the idea.

If I am ever out reporting in the pouring rain, struggling to write on a sodden notebook, I think back to my live demonstration of "waterproof paper", sitting on a bench with a hosepipe trained on me.

The Blue Peter garden was a useful outdoor location, which also saw the debut of anti-graffiti paint and laser pigeon-shooting.

Terrifying demonstrations

Some stories stand out not so much for the technology as the terrifying way the director chose to film them.

Sherwood Forest was the location for an unpromising item on soil compaction.

For the opening piece to camera, I had to carefully weave my way through a bunch of sword-fighting "outlaws", to a precise mark, so a BBC armourer could fire an arrow across my face into a tree.

After I rehearsed the shot, he said: "Don't do that when we go for a take."

Having hit the mark perfectly I was taken aback so needed an explanation.

"You shifted your weight onto your right leg when you stopped," he said. "Do that when I fire the arrow and it'll go straight through your head."

I like to think I was the first person to say, 'I'm on a train!'

Keen skiers can now wear avalanche airbags or radio-frequency ID tags to track them should they be unlucky enough to be caught in an avalanche.

I was buried in snow to demonstrate their efficacy more than 25 years ago.

I also tested a lethal-looking method of rescuing people from stranded ski lifts.

The night before, I sat in a bar with the cameraman looking at a photograph, both of us aghast at what was involved.


Man speaks Morse code to computer

Basically an open mesh cage with a hook on the top, swinging below a helicopter. We did it. We were quite mad.

Some technology never hit the marketplace. Where is that car I saw in 1987 that could do 150mpg? A French prototype I predicted would be commonplace by the time "our children are at the wheel".

I was also surprised at how slowly solar, wave and wind technology was adopted - a view shared by the original enthusiasts invited back for a 21st birthday edition of the show in 1986.

However, their moment has now arrived.

PC predictions

We often talked about how computers would get smaller and more powerful but I do not think I ever believed I would carry a "supercomputer in my pocket".

During my years on the show I saw the mobile phone downsize from one you could fit in a suitcase to one you could carry on your own but which cost £3,000.

Kieran Prendiville demonstrates computer-telephone link-ups
The show charted the mobile phone's birth and development

I remember BT lending me one for a weekend, so I would get the hang of it.

I had given the number to my husband, who rang me while I was on the train home. I like to think I was the first person to say: "I'm on a train!"

The whole carriage stared and shared my excitement that it was indeed possible to make a call on the 18.35 out of Paddington.

Being able to communicate on the move was obviously brilliant and I was the first TW reporter to buy one.

However, I never imagined how versatile it would prove to be, bringing together so many digital technologies, some that we featured like GPS and digital photography, or ones like the internet, which would arrive almost unheralded by the programme in the early 1990s.

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