Domesday and the BBC

A cautionary tale of technology in three acts

© Christopher Sessums /CC-BY-SA

Act I

The British are not apt to getting invaded or embarking on civil wars. Maybe that’s why, when they do, they’re such bloody dreadful events — as though we’ve been storing up all that aggression for centuries, hidden behind our stiff upper lips.

William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066 was especially cataclysmic. The Normans killed and dispossessed the natives by the thousand. Despite a prolonged and cruel consolidation, William’s grip on power was usually tenuous.

Facing more troubles in 1085, William commissioned the Domesday Book, a record of all landholdings in England with the main aim being to assess the tax income due to the King. It was a massive enterprise, detailing over 13,000 different places. The manuscripts themselves survive to this day, housed at the National Archives in London.

Act II

Nine centuries later, in 1986, the BBC did something rather unusual: it celebrated the 900th anniversary of a tax assessment.

This celebration took the form of the Domesday Project. It surveyed thousands of people in the UK (mostly students) who contributed writings, photos, maps and videos describing life in contemporary Britain.

Ever at the forefront of technology, the BBC took advantage of the latest computing had to offer:

  • Gasp in awe at the shiny LaserDiscs storing the information.
  • Drool at the sight of BBC Micros compiling data as fast as their 2 MHz CPUs can manage.
  • Contain your animal passions at the thought of software written in BCPL, a language that history will rightly remember as “an old programming language”.

Act III

Although aged, one can still read the Domesday Book today just as anyone in the 11th century did. Admittedly, it’s written in Medieval Latin, but a single person armed with only a pair of functioning eyes (or even just one eye) and some determination could learn what’s required to understand it.

Conversely, just 15 years after they were created, the materials from the BBC’s Domesday Project faced the threat of becoming completely unreadable. And not just simply hard to read:

  • LaserDiscs had become a thing of the past. Few functioning drives remained.
  • The software was written in BCPL, long since obsolete, its speakers mainly dead or retired.
  • The computers that ran the software (BBC Micros, VAX minicomputers) had mostly passed on to silicon heaven.

That meant many diverse skills were needed just to read the data in the Domesday Project. Handling (and likely fixing) the LaserDisc drives required electronic skill. Expertise in outdated computer hardware was necessary, as was knowledge of an old niche programming language. And that would only be the beginning. Project-specific knowledge was required — for example, images were originally stored using unusual, custom-written storage techniques that no-one outside of the project knew.

Reading the Domesday Project was a large effort for multiple, skilled people.

2004 saw the first efforts appear, but a few years later the project’s instigator died and the results died with him. The preservation itself was unfortunately not preserved.

Later attempts, however, appear more successful. The Centre for Computing History, The National Museum of Computing, and the BBC itself have all managed to preserve at least some of the information, thanks to teams of dedicated and conscientious people. Take a look for yourself on the Domesday Reloaded page over at the BBC.

Epilogue

So, the Domesday Project is rescued. It’s nice to end the story on a high note.

But what about in another 15 years? The materials may now be housed on modern equipment, but technology marches on. Old skills fade away. People retire and die. Today’s latest technology will seem very quaint and distant in a decade and a half.

Not for nothing is the BBC’s Domesday Project a cautionary tale of digital obsolescence.

Fifteen years means nothing to the Domesday Book. It will still be there in 2032, available as it has been for centuries. All we have to do is keep it in suitable conditions and not spill our drinks on it.