TV tribute to Manchester’s own Micro Man

07 Oct 2009

The early work of pioneering computer scientist Prof Steve Furber from The University of Manchester will be brought to life on national television this week.

A young Steve Furber (far right) played by Sam Phillips (pic courtesy of BBC)
A young Steve Furber (far right) played by Sam Phillips (pic courtesy of BBC)

Micro Men is a new BBC comic drama about the British home computer boom of the early 1980s.

It sees legendary inventor Clive Sinclair battling it out with ex-employee Chris Curry, founder of Acorn Computers, for dominance in the fledgling market.

The rivalry comes to a head when the BBC announces its Computer Literacy Project, with the stated aim of putting a micro in every school in Britain.

When Acorn wins the contract, Sinclair is furious, and determines to outsell the BBC Micro with his famous ZX Spectrum computer.

Prof Furber, who is now ICL Professor of Computer Engineering in the School of Computer Science at The University of Manchester, worked in the hardware development group within the R&D department at Acorn Computers Ltd from 1980 to 1990.

He was a principal designer of the BBC Microcomputer and the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor – both of which earned Acorn Computers a Queen's Award for Technology.

Prof Furber moved to The University of Manchester in 1990. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded a CBE in the 2008 New Year Honours List.

He is currently spearheading the SpiNNaker project, which is aiming to build a computing system that incorporates one million embedded ARM processors and mimics the human brain's biological structure and functionality.

In Micro Men, a young Prof Furber is played by Sam Phillips, who appears with short hair, a beard and glasses – which according to the man himself is "not quite how I appeared then”.

Prof Furber said: “I have never had a beard, didn’t wear glasses until my late 40s and my hair was quite long. I don’t think I wore a tie much even then, but I guess I have to own up to wearing tank-tops.

He added: “I've known about Micro Men from quite early on – the producer bought me lunch last year when the idea was being cooked up.

“I was asked to give my version of the story and also asked to comment on a draft script for accuracy.

“But I haven't seen the final version or the final script, so I'm not well-placed to comment on the accuracy of representation – yet.”

In one humorous trailer for Micro Men, Prof Furber is seen eating a Chinese takeaway with Acorn colleagues using a pair of pliers.

Asked about whether this is an accurate reflection of his eating habits at that time, Prof Furber adds: “I can't remember if I ever ate Chinese with pliers, but it doesn't seem that unlikely.”

Micro Men will be broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday 8th October at 9pm and 11.50pm, on Saturday 10th October at 10pm and on Monday 12th October at 9pm, and on BBC HD on Wednesday 14th October at 9pm.

On Thursday October 29 2009, Professor Furber will be giving the public an insight into his work at a special lecture as part of The Manchester Science Festival 2009 (www.manchestersciencefestival.com).

To launch the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary ‘Local Heroes’ event programme, Prof Furber will join fellow Manchester researchers Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, Prof Andre Geim and Prof Robin Marshall to talk about the latest development in their respective fields.

Notes for editors

For more information on Micro Men and stills, please contact the BBC Press Office. Also see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n5b92

For more information on Prof Furber and his work at The University of Manchester please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer, 0161 275 8387 / 07717 881569.

A clip from Micro Men featuring a young Steve Furber can be seen at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004mzkp

A current photograph of Prof Furber and a photograph from his time at Acorn can be supplied on request.

Prof Furber is available for comment by arrangement.