1986 was the 900th anniverary of William the First’s Domesday Book. The BBC, DTI and Philips spent £2.5 million on The Domesday Project, a modern equivalent on computer-controlled video disc. Schoolchildren would paint a picture of Britain in words and pictures. Acorn provided the latest Master 128 BBC Micro, with 128K of memory and circuitry modified to synchronise computer text with video pictures from a Philips laser disc player.
The BBC took over the job of writing the control software, from Acorn, and brought in Logica to help. The target launch date of Michaelmas, September 29, was missed. But a few samples scraped in before the year’s end.
There were two 12in laser discs, containing mostly Ordnance Survey maps and snapshot photographs, along with Government statistics such as graphs of population density. But the discs were not ordinary laser discs. They carried digital data instead of a sound track. This made them completely incompatible with existing laser player systems.
The necessary hardware cost £4,490 + VAT. Even with a special subsidy, schools had to pay £2,995. After a year the BBC admitted it had sold less than a thousand systems. In an effort to get things moving, Thorn EMI tried renting system for £140 a month.
The BBC’s grand plan had been to release further material on the same format. The Ecodsic, released in 1987, was a clever compilation of data collected from the Slapton nature reserve. But the single disc cost £169 + VAT, and the market was limited because it would only run on a Domesday system.
Whereas the original paper Domesday Book can still be read after nearly a thousand years, the Domesday disc is no longer available to the masses.