In 1984, the BBC embarked upon a project to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the publication of the Domesday Book which would fall in 1986. The idea was to make a modern-day electronic version of the Domesday Book using the latest technology.
The results of the project would be presented in an interactive audio-visual format based around the existing BBC microcomputer, manufactured of course by Acorn Computers, and widely used in schools since its launch in 1981, using 12-inch laserdiscs as the storage medium.
In addition to the involvement of Acorn and the BBC, Philips were chosen to supply the laserdisc player for use in the system. They developed a special version of their existing computer-controlled laserdisc player range. This enhanced version had a SCSI Interface which allowed the host computer to control the player via control codes passed to it via the SCSI bus, and also allowed the computer to fetch computer data from the laserdisc being played.
A special format of laserdisc was introduced known as LV-ROM. This was based on the existing CAV disc format, which stored video on the discs as up to 54,000 individual picture frames, along with two sound tracks. The computer data replaced part of one of the sound channels, allowing up to 325MB of computer data to be stored per side of a 12-inch laserdisc, whilst still retaining the capacity to store 54,000 video frames on the disc.
The BBC Master Computer, with internal second processor and SCSI Interface, plus trackerball, and the laserdisc player with its Genlock video mixing capability plus the Domesday laserdiscs, are together known as the Domesday Machine or the Domesday System.
Click here to learn more about the Domesday System
Two laserdiscs were planned for the Domesday Project, a National Disc and a Community Disc.
The National Disc involved a wide range of national bodies in putting together many sets of photographs, text and statistics about all aspects of British life in the 1980s. The results were presented on the National Disc in the form of the Domesday Gallery which can be navigated around using the BBC computer.
The gallery is organised into eight main sections, Society, Consumerism, Popular Arts & Crafts, Fine Arts, Royal Heritage, Daily Life, Environment and Sport. Each section has a number of picture sets and pages of accompanying text. There is something for everyone in the Domesday Gallery.
A further feature of the Domesday Gallery is the ability to exit the Gallery at various positions to take a virtual tour around an area, known as a Domesday Walk.
The second side of the National Disc is given over to a special video compilation called "Images of the 1980s" lasting just over an hour and bringing excerps from BBC television coverage of the major news events of each of the years of the 1980s up to 1986 when the discs were published.
Click here to learn more about using the National Disc
If the National Disc represented an over-arching picture of contemporary life in Britain in the 1980s, then the Community Disc recorded life at the grass-roots level. Here the idea was to present a detailed picture of local communities throughout the United Kingdom. To this end, thousands of schoolchildren all over the country were enlisted to cover a small area in their locality. Each locality was allocated a number of photographs and several pages of text, written by the schoolchildren.
The Community Disc has a Northern side and a Southern side and is an interactive map-based tool. The Disc begins at United Kingdom level with the ability to zoom in further until a locality is reached where the photographs and text can be accessed. A powerful text-based find facility provides an alternative way of searching the Community Disc.
Click here to learn more about using the Community Disc
The real power of the Domesday Discs lies in the cross-referencing of information. The Domesday System has the ability to present statistical data in graphical form which can be extracted by region or area and this important feature is available on both of the discs.
The system of combining computer data with audio-visuals was known as "Advanced Interactive Video" and further AIV discs were produced after the Domesday discs, including the Ecodisc, Volcanoes Disc and Countryside disc.
Click here to learn more about the AIV Discs
As an insight into 1980s Britain, the Domesday Project is extremely important. As the thirtieth anniversary of Domesday comes and goes, I hope it will not be forgotten, but sadly the rapid obsolescence of modern technology means that working examples of the Domesday Machine are difficult to find. This is why I am delighted to possess my own fully-working Domesday setup which, whilst not officially a Domesday System as originally sold, I have put together from the original parts which formed the Domesday Machine.
Click here to see BeebMaster's Domesday Machine
In the twentieth anniversary year in 2006, I embarked on my own little effort to preserve the contents of the Domesday Discs for the future. Even I have to admit that there may be a day when there are no longer any working BBC computers or, more likely, laserdisc players, and I have started to do my bit for Domesday preservation.
Click here to learn more about BeebMaster's Domesday Rescue