I've been watching some of the clips from the recently released Tomorrow's World Archive. Predictably, the ones of particular interest to me are the computing-related items. There's a report about Europe's first home computer terminal from 1967, which the narrator informs us is connected by the telephone system to a central "brain". You can send and receive correspondence, read your bank balance and keep informed of stock prices, all for £30 per month! Further to those parallels with today, the four-year-old child uses the terminal with more confidence than some of today's adults.

Even better, though, is the "school computer" report from 1969. At 1:10 we see a group of eleven-year-olds simulating a processor adding two binary numbers - obviously the real computer was in use by another class.

But seriously, the physics teacher in charge of that school's computer project deserves a lot of credit. It's difficult to imagine school IT teachers of today allowing the children to experiment with the computer for themselves and learn how to make their own programs, letting them write games, and even tasking the pupils with fixing the computer when it develops a hardware fault. I'd expect something more like "right, nobody touch the... 'comm'... 'putter'... it's a delicate piece of electronic equipment which youngsters can't possibly hope to understand. Here, take this pen and draw a spider diagram about how IT benefits society."

Griping in the guts

Anyway. At some point in the future not disclosed by the BBC, parish records from 1539 onwards will be made available online. These include the victims of the 1665 London plague. The deaths were helpfully summarised in "bills of mortality" issued weekly. This happens to be the one from 344 years ago next week:

London Bill of Mortality, 19-26 September 1665.
(Click for bigger. Clearer version here.)

Note how all different deaths are printed on their own line, from Plague: 7165, to Killed by a fall from the Belfrey at Allhallows the Great: 1. It's amusing to think of the person compiling the bill of mortality spending that week gloating to his peers "I told you! You've been making fun of me writing 'Burnt in his Bed by a Candle at St Giles Cripplegate: 0' on these things every week for the last twenty years, but this week, it's finally happened! And no, I was nowhere near St Giles Cripplegate on Wednesday evening, your honour." Unfortunately, it seems they added in the more unusual deaths only when they actually happened. Either way, when this database of parish records goes online, one of the first queries I want answered is something like the following:

select cause_of_death, count(cause_of_death) c from deaths where c < 10 group by cause_of_death order by c

In other words, give me all the causes of death that happened fewer than ten times over the entire length of time covered by the database, with the most unusual first. It'd read like one of those nethack "stupid deaths" lists, or perhaps Wikipedia's list of unusual deaths (which feels the need to point out that it isn't an exhaustive list). Someone might even manage to use SQL injection to insert bogus death records into the database - bonus points for the perfect blend of creativity and plausibility.

More carefully itemised directories of misery and death can be found here - search for "bill of mortality".