Sold on number crunchers;Profile;Carol Vorderman;Watershed;Education
It's no great revelation, yet oddly revealing all the same, that British television's best known number-cruncher, Carol Vorderman, could just as easily have followed a career in computer retailing. At 21, with a Cambridge engineering degree and a spell as a consultant already under her belt, she landed a job at one of the country's first home computer stores, Tandy, in Leeds. At about the same time, she was plucked from 3,000 hopefuls to become resident statistician on a little gameshow Yorkshire TV was developing for the prospective Channel 4. Countdown took off and Carol took off with it. Yet at the time, she remembers, quitting the day job seemed "quite a risk", even when, as she readily admits, "I couldn't sell to save my life".
Tandy lost a lukewarm salesperson, while maths, science - and, by the way, computers - gained one of their most prolific popularisers. But Carol and computers go back a long way, and they were not always on the best of terms. Already a maths prodigy at the Blessed Edward Jones High School in Rhyl in the mid-Seventies, she took "what must have been one of the earliest GCE O-level computer studies courses".
"We had a terminal with punched tape, linked to a computer in the local tech in Wrexham. There was a computer language called CESIL, developed especially for secondary schools. It was rather laborious. You'd write your request, go online with it, and a week later you'd get the answer back - which was usually 'syntax error'."
She had an equally bad time with computers at Cambridge: "We used what at the time was state-of-the-art computing, FORTRAN. At least we had screensI but it was so damn slow. And it had so many bugs, which you couldn't just hammer out. All your thought processes were about how to pick away at this system."
It was the early Tandy microcomputers and their Visicalc software that gave the young Vorderman her first really positive IT experience - working as a consultant for a frozen food manufacturer, "analysing how much water went into a ton of frozen peas and so on".
Although these primitive PCs were, by today's standards, laughably crude and feeble, they sparked an interest which has remained with her. "After a while at Yorkshire TV, I put forward an idea for what became the first home computer show on Channel 4 - it was called So We Bought A Computer, and it went out as a six-part series in 1984."
"By then I regarded myself as a computer journalist," she says - adding that then, as now, that was no easy thing. "The industry changes so quickly, and you have to stay on top of it." And that, she says, is where she is still, trying to keep on top of it all. Whether making the 1997 BBC series, Computers Don't Bite, or co-writing Carol Vorderman's Guide to the Internet with Rob Young, or ensuring that her two young children use only the best educational software on their PCs, Carol believes firmly that "unless you grab on to it, you're dead".
After a false start a few years ago, she's now a great fan of the Internet. "It used to be seen as a place for anoraks - now, much as I'm keen on technology, I'm not an anorak . . . but then a year ago I had another go, and it's so different now, so much more useful." She uses the Internet to get ideas for her many public speeches - "but I don't use newsgroups, I have neither the need nor the desire, and I don't have time to go surfing".
The computer journalist in Carol Vorderman is excited by her vision of an Internet-based revolution in working life: "Progress and hi-tech can give us back a love of low-tech things. You know how they put transponders on cattle, so they can regulate how much they eat and so on. They can be free range because of high technology. It's the same with people - you can have free-range people!" Virtual office technology, she reckons, should liberate people from the tyranny of commuting, and the fixed working pattern. She's also a "great believer in the way information and communications technology changes children's attitudes towards education" - citing as proof the success of Dixons City Technology College in Bradford, of which she wasa governor.
But Carol Vorderman disapproves of some classroom technology. She learned maths without electronic aids. "I fight against the use of calculators in primary schools. It's too easy to say 'Ban them', and I don't mind them in secondary schools, but for five-year-olds"
THE VORDERMAN FILE
1978-81 Reads engineering at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1982 Begins television career on Channel 4's Countdown
1987 Devised, wrote and presented So We Bought A Computer for Channel 4
1988 Publishes Dirty, Loud and Brilliant, a book of science experiments for children
1989 Presents The Software Show on BBC1
1990 Presents BBC2 series for primary science teachers
1996 Returns to Countdown for its 32nd series