Bill Thompson is a writer, journalist, and digital pioneer.
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he spent much of his childhood in Northamptonshire, before gaining a place at Cambridge University to study Philosophy. And it was here, in an Experimental Psychology module, that he experienced his first contact with computers – with an Acorn Atom in 1981.
Bill later said he was privileged to be exposed to such technology, but at the time, knew too little to appreciate it. So three years later, he took a graduate course in Computer Science, which gave him a theoretical understanding that has been fundamental to his relationship with digital technology ever since.
Having completed the course, and armed with his new skills, Bill went to work for a software house in Cambridge, writing a database management system to run on UNIX systems – something Bill describes as the IT equivalent of being “made” in the Mafia. And it was as a “made man” that he moved to Acorn Computers, to work with the team developing the ARM microprocessor.
Bill’s time at Cambridge hadn’t just exposed him to new ideas and new technology. As a keen student journalist, he also discovered a talent and a passion for writing. And he continued to write as he developed his career in computing.
During the 80’s, Bill wrote a regular column for Computing Magazine. In 1988, he began writing for Computer Guardian, and by the mid-90’s, although still working full-time in the technology sector, he was writing more and more for the Guardian Online.
In 1993, Bill went to work for Pipex, the UK’s first Internet Service Provider. Not long after starting his new role, he was in the office one day when a colleague called him over to look at a new program he’d just installed, a program called Mosaic. Mosaic allowed them to look at content from other connected computers via a new service called the World Wide Web. Bill instantly recognised that the world was about to change, and he set about helping to shape its development.
In early 1994, he built his first website for Pipex’s Computer College. In March 1994, he transmitted the world’s first webcast. And in June that year, he built a website for Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge. It was the first website for an elected representative in Europe.
In early 1995, Bill went to work full-time for The Guardian newspaper, but not merely to provide comment on technological development – because in 1996 he became head of the paper’s New Media Lab, overseeing the launch of the Guardian and Observer websites.
Bill left the Guardian to enjoy the freedom of the freelancer, writing, consulting, making media appearances, occasionally building websites, teaching Online Journalism at City University, and writing a weekly column in the Technology Section for BBC News. He became the regular studio expert on Click, on BBC World Service radio.
In 2009 Bill accepted the role of Head of Partnership Development at the BBC’s Archive Development Projects, where he remains today.
Bill has been a relentless campaigner for incorporating digital technology as a liberating and challenging force for good. And he has made a significant contribution to the cultural development of the digital landscape that exists today.
He is a Trustee of the Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia, a board member of Writers’ Centre Norwich, and has a close affinity to our region.
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