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About A Week: A Wi-Fi World

Peter Hinchliffe tells of the birth of the modern computer age.

The man at the next table is tap-tapping on a laptop.

He's absorbed in his work, oblivious to the coffee house conversation going on around him.

From time to time, almost as an afterthought, he pauses to sip coffee.

I glance up from today’s edition of The Times newspaper, musing on what is requiring so much concentrated keyboard attention.

He doesn’t look like a businessman. He’s wearing a grey sweater and blue jeans. An estate agent, perhaps? An author? A fellow journalist?

The sight of workers absorbed in intimate communion with laptops is becoming increasingly common in coffee shops and public spaces in the UK. The country is rapidly wiring itself up for the 21st Century. In the past year the number of wireless hotspots has increased by 160 per cent in London alone.

Wireless data networking and mobile (cell) phones are freeing increasing numbers of workers from the straight jacket of a nine-to-five office routine.

Working from coffee shops is no new idea in England. In the 18th Century business was done by men who assembled to sip the aromatic refresher.

One of the country’s leading literary figures of that time, Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, met friends and tested his ideas in coffee shops.

Dr Johnson is remembered for his pithy sayings. “We are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction,’’ he said. “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment.’’

And what better antidote to the tedium of a regimented office routine than the freedom to work in the relaxed atmosphere of a coffee shop?

Using coffee shops as work places does require a new etiquette. “Beduin’’ workers should not nurse one coffee all morning or afternoon while commandeering a table. Further coffees should be bought at regular intervals.

And the chap tapping away on the next table to me is mindful of the unwritten rules. He has just ordered another large Americano.

Free Wi-Fi was first offered in coffee shops on the USA’s trend-setting West Coast, and another trend may spread from that part of the world. A coffee shop in Seattle shuts down its free Wi-Fi on Saturdays and Sundays. The idea is to get customers to forget about work at weekends and to spend more time talking to one another.

Tap-tap-tap goes the laptop on the next table. The chap doing the tapping suddenly smiles to himself. Another multi-thousand-pounds deal completed? A news article rounded off with a well-crafted sentence?

I lay down The Times and ponder on the marvels of the computer age. Wonder if this chap next to me, fuelled into keyboard frenzy by gulps of black coffee, realises that the computer revolution began right here in Yorkshire, a few miles away from where we're sitting.

The textile mills built in the valleys around here initiated the industrial revolution. And a man called Tom Kilburn, who grew up in Dewsbury, a local mill town, sparked the computer age.

Tom travelled daily on steam trains in the 1940s between his home in Dewsbury and Manchester, filling his journeys with mathematical calculations. During World War Two he worked with Freddie Williams on telecommunications research. They were re-united in peacetime when Freddie - later Sir Freddie - became head of electronics at Manchester University.

They designed a computer called Baby – and what a heavyweight baby it was!

It had a memory store of 32 words, 650 valves, was 16ft long and weighed half a tonne.

Baby, the first modern computer, worked for the first time on June 21, 1948.

Tom Kilburn was educated at Dewsbury Wheelwright Grammar School. His headmaster, Mr Leslie Sadler, himself a mathematician, spotted Tom’s talent and fast-tracked him to a Cambridge scholarship and a first-class honours degree.

Tom died in 2001. He did not receive huge financial rewards for his genius, nor has he had the fame he deserves.

By the way I too was educated at Dewsbury Wheelwright. I was a pupil at the school 15 years after Tom, though Mr Sadler was still headmaster. I was never likely to be one of his favourites. I was more interested in words than I was in mathematics, and became a newspaper journalist.

Newspaper sales in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, are declining. News is now more readily available from TV, radio and the Net. Yet some still have faith in the money-making potential of the daily press. The world’s biggest printing plant was opened this week by News International, owned by Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the Times, Sunday Times and the Sun.

Twelve state-of-the-art colour printing presses cover an area the size of 23 football pitches. The plant is in Hertfordshire. Each press can produce 70,000 papers an hour.

Ah…the chap on the next table is closing his laptop and getting up to leave.

About time I was on my way too. I drink off my coffee and fold up my newspaper. Gosh this newspaper is bulky. The main section has 84 pages, then there are a couple of supplements with 16 or more pages each. What a thing to have to lug around town!

All those trees chopped down to fuel every print run. All the cost in transporting newsprint from Scandinavia and other parts of the world to UK.

Soon there will be laptops which can be rolled up and stuffed in a jacket pocket or a handbag. They will become almost as commonplace as mobile phones.

Wi-Fi will be universal.

Then I will sit in a coffee shop, tap a few keys, and read today’s Times while sipping my latté,


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