Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Truly Trivial: Which famous computer was Douglas Adams the first Briton to own?

“And Another Thing” UK book coverImage by markbult via Flickr
Today we come to honor the legacy of one of the late twentieth century's true Renaissance men. He was a multitalented author, playwright, musician and scholar. He contributed to some of the most beloved and well recognized media works of our time, and his wit and humor have been celebrated by -- and have greatly influenced -- some of the foremost thinkers of the age. We speak, of course, of Douglas Adams, and while geeks need little prompting to speak of him, we are moved to again revisit this icon of the nerd underverse on the occasion of his most famous franchise's final chapter.

And Another Thing..., the last novel in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, goes on sale this week. It's also the first, last, and only Hitchhiker's Guide novel that isn't authored by Adams himself. Eoin Colfer, the originator of the Artemis Fowl series (which might be described as Harry Potter by way of Dirk Gently), was bestowed the honor and the challenge of completing the Hitchhiker's Guide story by Adams' wife and daughter.

There are those who are rightfully leery of anyone besides Adams attempting to continue the Hitchhiker's Guide universe. After all, Adams' creation spanned the media landscape, finding its way into novels, radio, television, movies, and video games. Moreover, the Hitchhikers Guide series has influenced everything from basic text editors to chess supercomputers to Google's built-in calculator.

Yet for all that the Hitchhikers Guide has meant to us, Douglas Adams himself meant more. He wasn't just the creator of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox. Adams occasionally jammed with Pink Floyd and picked the title for the group's final album, The Division Bell. Adams was one of only two non-Pythonites to write for Monty Python's Flying Circus. Oh, and he wrote a couple of Doctor Who serials, where he met Lalla Ward -- who played Romana -- and eventually introduced her to her present husband, noted zoologist and religious critic Richard Dawkins.

To say Adams was a man of many talents is an absurdly extreme understatement. And we haven't even begun to discuss his charity work or his technology advocacy. In fact, buried within the mountain of Adams-related trivia is the fact that he was an early adopter of one of the most well known consumer computers ever released. In fact, he was the first Englishman to own one.

Which famous computer was Douglas Adams the first Briton to own?

Douglas Adams was reputedly the first British resident to own an Apple Macintosh computer in 1984. Accounts occasionally differ, with some suggesting that actor/author/humorist Stephen Fry -- a friend of Adams -- was first, but the accepted wisdom is that Adams was the first Briton to receive a Mac.

While an admitted Mac fanboy, Adams was also a serious student and thinker on computing technology. He frequently wrote and published essays on current computing trends and applications, many of which are collected in The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous anthology of Adams' final work (including an incomplete Dirk Gently and/or Hitchhikers Guide novel). Readers of MacUser magazine or Britain's Independent newspaper may well recall Adams' computing columns printed therein. He also spoke at the 2001 Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco shortly before his death.

Douglas Adams' funeral was livestreamed on the Internet by the BBC, the first church service of any sort broadcast by that agency to the Web. Even in death, he was on the cutting edge of media technology. That legacy lives on today in h2g2, an Adams-founded and Hitchhiker's Guide-inspired competitor to the Wikipedia currently run by the BBC. Moreover, there are a number of portable computing and augmented reality projects under development that are explicitly designed to create a contemporary version of the Hitchhiker's Guide, even if it's only for us mostly harmless denizens of Earth. With any luck, we'll have the technology ironed out just in time for the Vogon Constructor Fleet to arrive, thus proving that all of us, Adams included, are (from a comic perspective) Truly Trivial.

After years of writing trivia columns I've come to embrace the fact that almost everyone reading these things is smarter than me, which is why you always seem to find omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright screw-ups in my work. And like all great businessmen, I intend to profit from my own ignorance and sloth. Thus, I invite you, the reader, to call me out on these entertaining little glitches in each Truly Trivial column. The responder with the smartest, best-sourced, and/or most amusing gotcha will earn a place of honor in the subsequent column by having his/her/its comment highlighted next week in this space, along with an excuse, rebuttal or (more likely) half-hearted mea culpa from me. Yes, that is your sense of self-importance rising to the bait. Don't fight it. I dare you.