Our new podcast, hosted by Lucy Rogers, Harriet Braine and Bec Hill, explores the links between world-changing inventions from centuries gone by and the technologies we take for granted today.
The DesignSpark team onstage with Harriet Braine (front left), Dr Lucy Rogers (front centre) and Bec Hill (front right)
What would the visionary makers of centuries gone by make of modern technologies like AI, Wi-Fi and 3D printing? Would they be curious, amazed or puzzled? Would they wish they’d invented them, or feel happy that they didn’t? And what if we could press a button today and un-invent them – would we want to?
All these questions and more get the comedy treatment in History Makers, an all-new podcast series from DesignSpark featuring Robot Wars judge and DesignSpark blogger Dr Lucy Rogers alongside Harriet Braine, musical comedian and Funny Women winner, and cult stand-up comic Bec Hill.
The six episodes were recorded live, before an audience, over three summer sessions hosted at London’s Canal Café Theatre, renowned as the launch-pad for many a comedy career. Find out what the audience thought below!
Each episode brings a famous maker from the past face-to-face with a happening technology from the present day in a comedic cornucopia of facts, jokes, sketches and songs. We’ll pay our respects to the struggles and triumphs of makers who went before and reflect on whether the technologies that came after them are really as beneficial as we think.
History Makers from DesignSpark was created with expert help from a crack team of producers, writers and script editors with credits across multiple BBC shows including Breaking the News, The News Quiz, Newsjack and the double award-winning Damn the Torpedoes!
Episode 1: From radio to Wi-Fi
Over the last couple of decades, Wi-Fi has gone from a ‘nice to have’ technological innovation to an essential that none of us can live without. It’s no longer enough just to have Wi-Fi at home – increasingly, we demand it when we’re travelling, shopping and stepping out too.
In Episode 1, we’ll unearth the secret story of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor and father of modern radio. He made the first long-distance radio transmission in 1897 and was soon sending radio signals across the English Channel, then across 2100 miles of the Atlantic. He received the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1909.
We’ll also explore the fascinating life of Hedy Lamarr, who started out as a Hollywood film star before switching to engineering during World War Two, inventing radio guidance systems that laid the groundwork for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology.
We’ll hear why Bec thinks Wi-Fi is the worst thing ever and weigh up the pros and cons of wireless with Lucy. Finally, we’ll ask the audience whether Wi-Fi is a movie-streaming blessing or a router-rebooting curse.
Episode 2: From Frankenstein’s monster to AI
Episode 2 puts the spotlight on AI and the idea that humans could one day create a being that can truly think for itself. We’ll explore the life of author Mary Shelley through facts and songs, and reveal the inspiration for her famous novel Frankenstein, which struck fear into generations of readers and moviegoers and has become a byword for the creature that rises up against its creator.
Back in the present, we’ll take a look at modern advances in machine learning and ask Bec what she thinks of them. (She thinks they’re the worst thing ever.) Then we’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of AI and ask the audience whether they see it as a helpful housemate or an algorithmic albatross.
Episode 3: Grace, the grandma of COBOL
Computers are so integral to every part of our lives, it’s hard to imagine how we’d live without them. But there was a time when they cost millions, filled entire rooms and were the exclusive preserve of top engineers and inventors.
In Episode 3, we trace the life and work of Grace Hopper, who found the world’s first computer bug. Born in New York in 1906, Grace was a naturally talented engineer who gained a PhD in maths and worked on a US Navy computing project during World War II. She then joined the team who created UNIVAC 1, the first commercial computer in the USA. Her genius idea was a computer language using English words and grammar, which eventually became COBOL, one of the first programming languages and still in use today.
We’ll hear a song about Grace, deliver a crash course in programming and explore what it means to us today. Bec will explain why she thinks programming is the worst thing ever, and we’ll ask the audience to say whether it’s a killer app or a system crash.
Episode 4: Longitude, latitude and laughs
Episode 4 unfolds the concept of longitude and latitude and explains why timekeeping is so vital in navigation. We’ll meet expert horologist John Harrison, who crafted the most precise clocks of the 1720s before going on to crack the problem of measuring longitude at sea by building the first truly accurate marine chronometer. His inventions made a huge contribution to safe ocean travel and almost certainly saved many lives at sea.
Back in the present, Bec will share her thoughts on timekeeping (spoiler: worst thing ever) and we’ll commemorate John Harrison in song before asking the audience: is timekeeping a punctual positive or a dawdling dud?
Episode 5: From Wedgwood’s wares to 3D printing
Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730 and became a potter like his father. Dissatisfied with the ceramic materials of the time, he harnessed scientific principles to develop new styles of crockery that were far more attractive and durable. He then began experimenting with barium sulphate and created Jasperware, which gave us the familiar blue and white design of classic Wedgwood pottery. Goods from his factory were popular with everyone, right up to the Royal Family.
What would Wedgwood make of 3D printers, which can knock out a perfectly formed item in minutes? And how would he go about selling his latest products? We’ll run through all this and more, exploring Josiah’s life in facts and song and putting the question to our audience: is 3D printing all it’s cracked up to be, or is it – as Bec suggests – the worst thing ever?
Episode 6: From calculations to cyber
Ada Lovelace was born into a noble family in 1815, the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron. Her mother, fearing she might emulate Byron’s ‘insanity’, pushed her towards a career in mathematics, which she took to very readily. On meeting Charles Babbage she became fascinated with his Difference Engine, an early calculating machine. Soon after, she realised that if machines could work with symbols, they could become computational devices – computers – rather than just calculators. Many regard her notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine to be the first computer program.
In this final episode, we’ll hear about Ada’s life and serenade her with song, then examine how her vision of computing shaped the idea of Cybernetics, the study of control and communication in both animals and machines. Bec will share her opinion on Cyber – surprisingly, the worst thing ever – and we’ll ask the audience whether they’d prefer a pint of Cyber or a pint of cider.