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Chains of Consequences: How the Daily Mirror Created the iPhone (and Saved the Lenin Museum)

By Tom Anderson

Iphones image by Pangkakit at Japanese Wikipedia, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Lenin museum image by Gennady Grachev from Moscow, Russia, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Daily Mirror is a British tabloid newspaper with a generally left-wing and pro-Labour Party editorial position, which today is rare for a tabloid. The paper has gone through a number of periods of controversy over the years, including its period of ownership by Robert Maxwell and the editorial tenure of Piers Morgan. Like newspapers around the world, its circulation has declined in recent years due to the growth of the internet as a source of news, and in particular the fact that young people are growing up used to accessing it on the go through smartphones. It is therefore ironic that the Mirror played an unwitting part in the very computer revolution that came to threaten it!

In 1957, Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp wanted a regular cartoon strip for the Manchester edition of the paper, which at this time had the highest circulation in the country with its huge working-class readership. He turned to the Hartlepool-born cartoonist Reg Smythe, who had already been working on the paper for three years. Smythe created a character based on his own childhood roots, drawing upon Northern English archetypes to imagine a working-class man who never actually worked, with a turbulent marriage and classical interests in snooker, football and pigeon racing. He would wear an iconic chequered cap pulled down over his eyes, implying his own narrow horizons. His name would therefore be a pun on ‘handicap’: Andy Capp.

Andy Capp on a football flat

Although frequently accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of Northerners, Andy Capp went from strength to strength, and his comic strip even survived Smythe’s death in 1998. Changes came with time, such as the removal of domestic violence from the strip and also smoking (the latter allegedly being more because Smythe quit himself than any editorial pressure). The strip became a musical in 1982, following in the path of earlier examples such as the USA’s Peanuts. In 1960 a children’s comic was launched headlined by Buster, supposedly, the son of Andy and his wife Flo, though the two rarely intersected in later years. This itself had a huge impact on British comics development, lasting until 2000 and forming the later nucleus of the Fleetway comics empire. With the connection eventually lost, Buster updated his own chequered cap to a baseball cap in the 1990s, but like his father, still never removed it. It would not be until the very last issue of Buster that he revealed he had been unable to take it off for copyright reasons because he had the same hairstyle as the star of The Beano, Dennis the Menace!

Somewhat unexpectedly given the parochial nature of the character and his setting, the Andy Capp strip also proved popular abroad, suitably localised where necessary. In France he is André Chapeau, in Ghana he is An’Dicap and in Germany he is the unfortunate Willi Wakker. In the United States, where no translation is necessary, the strip is sufficiently well known to have been referenced by Homer Simpson in The Simpsons. In 1971 he was even licensed by the US company Goodmark Foods for use as the mascot of a snack product, Andy Capp’s Fries.

All of this goes some way towards explaining the otherwise inexplicable (to British eyes) fact that a pub in Sunnyvale, California in 1972 had been named “Andy Capp’s Tavern” by its owner. (Today the building, located at 157 W. El Camino Real, is a comedy club called Rooster T. Feathers). 1972 was a very important year in the history of video games. The first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, had launched.

Meanwhile, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney were founding the company Atari, and set their engineer Allan Alcorn the challenge of building an arcade game inspired by the Odyssey’s two-paddle tennis game. Alcorn succeeded, producing Pong, the video game that began the arcade boom. Atari were later sued by Magnavox, but even after paying a large fine for copyright infringement were still making huge profits. A story circulated (though it appears to be deliberately exaggerated for marketing legend) that on its first test day of operation, the first Pong machine broke because its coin box was overloaded. Alcorn had developed a truly addictive arcade game. And where was that first place that Bushnell decided to test it? Andy Capp’s Tavern.

This is not where the story ends, though. Atari found that what they had done unto Magnavox, others could do unto them. The concept of Pong was deceptively simple enough that other companies were soon making their own knock-off Pong clones. Bushnell decided that Atari had to innovate to keep ahead of the pack, and envisaged a variant game where a player would control only one paddle, but would have to knock away a wall of blocks. The project was given to a young employee named Steve Jobs, who worked with his friend Steve Wozniak, an employee of Hewlett-Packard (a company which, regular readers of these articles will recall, would likely not still be around by the 1970s if Goethe had not written a certain poem in the eighteenth century). Wozniak had developed a reputation for being able to do more with fewer computer chips, and Bushnell wanted the price to be cut on the new game by having to buy in fewer chips for the expensive arcade board.

In the end, though Jobs and Wozniak’s game was greatly successful—it became the much-copied game Breakout—it did not succeed in Bushnell’s aim of doing more with less. Wozniak had worked four nights straight (while still working his day job) and he and Jobs produced a board with only 44 chips (compared to the typical 150-170) but the game was not adopted in this form. Varying stories circulate about why, but it is frequently claimed that the other Atari engineers simply could not understand Wozniak’s idiosyncratically brilliant hardware design. The Atari production version used 100 chips.

In 1976, Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple Computer. Their first product, the Apple I, was more of an assembly kit than a true integrated personal computer (as was common at the time). In 1977, however, they released the Apple II. This machine (the hardware largely designed by Wozniak and the case by Jobs) helped kickstart the first home computer revolution, along with competitors like the Commodore PET. Notably, its groundbreaking colour graphics are the reason why the Apple logo appeared in rainbow colours on its casing (and often does to this day). Wozniak wanted to show off the computer’s capabilities, and one of his ambitions was to be able to show off his old Breakout game in full colour on a home computer. Because of this, he later said that his original Breakout board design had strongly influenced his design of the Apple II.

The Apple II made a vast impact, with the first practical home spreadsheet programme VisiCalc being credited as the first ‘killer app’. Even after it was long obsolete, the machine was still frequently used years later in arenas such as education; Apple eventually had to manufacture an ‘Apple II on a card’ that could be installed in their later machines to allow backwards compatibility, as American schools did not want to lose all the Apple II software they were using. The computer was also copied by the USSR, who released a clone called the ‘Agat’ used in schools.

However, the Soviet machines were inferior. In the 1970s and 80s, Soviet leaders often worried about the USSR’s fate as the last generation to remember Lenin and the Russian Revolution died off (evidently a justified worry, as the first Soviet leader born after the Revolution, Gorbachev, did indeed preside over the end of Communism). The Soviets developed the idea of ‘ideologico-emotional centres’, multimedia museums that would tell the story of Lenin’s life and other key foundational stories. Giant glass cubes contained dioramas from the Revolutionary period, using reel-to-reel recordings, lights, lasers and more. They needed some way to control and coordinate all this, and the Soviet computer clones were insufficiently capable.

The Soviets therefore turned to a British company, Electrosonic, which sold a kit named the ES4000—a multimedia exhibition programming tool built into a now-outdated Apple II. Because the deal was technically forbidden by Soviet regulations, it was carried out by Beech Compix, a UK-based front for the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A USSR-based company, Cascade, claimed credit for having developed the technology, in order to keep up the false idea that Soviet industry was capable of outmatching the West. Even to this day (as recently covered by Atlas Obscura) the Lenin Museum in Gorky Leninskiye is still kept going on ancient 1970s American computers.

But in the West, of course, the Apple II was only the beginning. It would take far more electronic ink than one article to chart the rise, fall and rise again of Apple Computer—but there must be few people alive in the world today who do not know of its most iconic modern product, the iPhone. It was not the first smartphone, any more than the iPad was the first tablet or the iPod was the first MP3 player. But Apple’s command of marketing appeal normalised new technologies for a whole generation, rather than appealing only to adventurous first adopters. Our society has been transformed, and old institutions such as newspapers find it increasingly hard to cope.

So in the end, one wonders if the Daily Mirror’s staff now regret their predecessors creating Andy Capp.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth