BBC Domesday Project

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1986 Domesday Book running on its original hardware

The BBC Domesday Project was a partnership between Acorn Computers, Philips, Logica and the BBC (with some funding from the European Commission's ESPRIT programme) to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book, an 11th-century census of England. It has been cited as an example of digital obsolescence on account of the physical medium used for data storage.[1][2][3][4]

This new multimedia edition of Domesday was compiled between 1984 and 1986 and published in 1986. It included a new "survey" of the United Kingdom, in which people, mostly school children, wrote about geography, history or social issues in their local area or just about their daily lives. Children from 9,000 schools were involved.[5] This was linked with maps, and many colour photos, statistical data, video and "virtual walks". Over 1 million people participated in the project. The project also incorporated professionally prepared video footage, virtual reality tours of major landmarks and other prepared datasets such as the 1981 census.


Initially estimated to require the involvement of 10000 schools and about one million children, the intention was to make the role of schools central in a data gathering project that would assign each school to a geographical area, have parents and local societies collect data, with the schools "acting as a focus and providing the computer". Questionnaires about geography, amenities and land use were to be completed, with school pupils and other contributors also able to write about their local area and "the issues affecting them" in their own words.[6]

In the context of the educational relevance of microcomputers and of information retrieval software operating on repositories of data that might potentially be built by children, it was felt that...

It is in the handling of data that children can best develop an understanding of what counts for knowledge. They can be led into the areas of critical interpretation. As the computer takes over the role of storing and sorting the data, children can increasingly involve themselves in analysing the significance of the data.

— Bill O'Neill, University of Ulster, cited by John Lamb in New Scientist, 28 March 1985[5]


Function key strip for navigation

The project was stored on adapted LaserDiscs in the LaserVision Read Only Memory (LV-ROM) format, which contained not only analogue video and still pictures, but also digital data, with 300 MB of storage space on each side of the disc. Initial estimates indicated a total storage capacity of 2 GB per disc, described as sufficient for 80000 pictures (including satellite images) and "half a million text pages" plus software to process maps and graphical information.[6] The delivered product was estimated to offer a "total potential capacity" of around 1400 MB with half of that capacity filled.[7]

Data and images were selected and collated by the BBC Domesday project based in Bilton House in West Ealing. Pre-mastering of data was carried out on a VAX-11/750 mini-computer, assisted by a network of BBC Micro microcomputers. The discs were mastered, produced, and tested by the Philips Laservision factory in Blackburn, England. Viewing the discs required an Acorn BBC Master expanded with a SCSI controller and an additional coprocessor controlled Philips VP415 "Domesday Player", a specially produced laserdisc player. The user interface consisted of the BBC Master's keyboard and a trackball (more specifically the Marconi RB2 Trackerball rebranded by Acorn). The software for the project was written in BCPL (a precursor to C), to make cross platform porting easier, although BCPL never attained the popularity that its early promise suggested it might.

The project was split over two laserdiscs:

  • The Community Disc contained personal reflections on life in Britain and is navigated on a geographic map of Britain. The entire country was divided into blocks that were 4 km wide by 3 km long, based on Ordnance Survey grid references. Each block could contain up to 3 photographs and a number of short reflections on life in that area. Most, but not all, of the blocks are covered in this way. In addition more detailed maps of key urban areas and blocks of 40x30 km and regional views were captured, allowing "zoom-out" and "zoom-in" functions. The community disc was double sided, with a "Southern" and a "Northern" side, although country-wide data at the 40x30km level and above was on both sides.
  • The National Disc contained more varied material, including data from the 1981 census, sets of professional photographs and virtual reality-like walkarounds shot for the project. Side 2 of the National disc contained video material. The material was stored in a hierarchy and some of it could be browsed by walking around a virtual art gallery, clicking on the pictures on the wall, or walking through doors in the gallery to enter the VR walkarounds. In addition a natural language search was provided via an English stemming and matching algorithm to a set of keywords.


A BBC Master computer, laserdisc and player on exhibition
A Domesday system at the VCF-GB 2010

In 2002, there were great fears that the discs would become unreadable as computers capable of reading the format had become rare and drives capable of accessing the discs even rarer. Aside from the difficulty of emulating the original code, a major issue was that the still images had been stored on the laserdisc as single-frame analogue video, which were overlaid by the computer system's graphical interface. The project had begun years before JPEG image compression and before truecolour computer video cards had become widely available.


However, the BBC later announced that the CAMiLEON project (a partnership between the University of Leeds and University of Michigan) had developed a system capable of accessing the discs using emulation techniques.[8] The CAMiLEON project transferred the text and database files stored on the Domesday laserdiscs to a Linux-based computer using an SCSI connection to the player. Images, stored as still-frame video, were digitised at full resolution using video capture hardware and stored uncompressed, ultimately requiring around 70 GB of storage per side of each laserdisc. A modified version of the Free Software emulator, BeebEm, was then used to access the archived data, with enhancements introduced to support emulation of the Turbo co-processor, SCSI communication and laserdisc player functionality.[9]

Videotape Digitisation Efforts[edit]

Another team, working for the UK National Archives (who hold the original Domesday Book) tracked down the original 1-inch videotape masters of the project. These were digitised and archived to Digital Betacam.[10]

Domesday 1986[edit]

A version of one of the discs was created that runs on a Windows PC. This version was reverse-engineered from an original Domesday Community disc and incorporates images from the videotape masters. It was initially available only via a terminal at the National Archives headquarters in Kew, Surrey, but was published on the web as Domesday 1986 (at in July 2004.[11] This version was taken off-line early in 2008 when its programmer, Adrian Pearce, suddenly died.[12]

Domesday Reloaded[edit]

The Domesday machine in 2011

In 2011 a team at BBC Learning, headed by George Auckland, republished much of the Community disc data in a short-lived web-based format.[13] This data comprising around 25,000 images was loaded onto the BBC Domesday Reloaded website which went online in May 2011,[14] and offline in June 2018, being hosted in archived form at the National Archives thereafter.[15] The data extraction underlying the Domesday Reloaded site was carried out in 2003 and 2004 by Simon Guerrero and Eric Freeman.[16][17]


Subsequent efforts by the Domesday86 project have taken a broader approach to preservation by attempting to preserve the technologies used to access Domesday and other interactive video content, along with the content itself, focusing on the laserdiscs as preservation artefacts in their own right.[18] The stated objective of the group is to create hardware and software to permit the use of the BBC Domesday system without the need for the rare and expensive specialist hardware employed by the original system, also providing support for the original hardware, releasing developments under Free Software and open hardware licences.[19]

Museum Preservation Initiatives[edit]

The Centre for Computing History has undertaken a similar project to preserve the data from the Domesday Project and make it available online.[20] In 2011, with the National Disc and Community Disc processed, the museum was investigating copyright issues before releasing the URL to the general public.[21] An emulator has since been made available in collaboration with the Domesday86 project.[22] The museum has a working Domesday system on display and accessible to the public. They also have possibly the largest Domesday and interactive laserdisc archive in the world.[citation needed]

The National Museum of Computing based beside Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes previously had two working Domesday systems but has retired the displays as of 2017.

Archival of Material[edit]

The deputy editor of the Domesday Project, Mike Tibbets, has criticized the UK's National Data Archive to which the archive material was originally entrusted, arguing that the creators knew that the technology would be short-lived but that the archivists had failed to preserve the material effectively.[23]

Copyright issues[edit]

In addition to preserving the project, untangling the copyright issues also presents a significant challenge. In addition to copyright surrounding the many contributions made by the estimated 1 million people who took part in the project, there are also copyright issues that relate to the technologies employed. It is likely that the Domesday Project will not be completely free of copyright restrictions until at least 2090 (assuming no further extensions of copyright terms).[24]

Interactive video[edit]

The BBC Master-based system used to deliver the Domesday Project content was also intended as a platform to support other interactive video applications, integrating with programming languages such as BASIC and Logo via the operating system.[7] Opportunities were perceived for the introduction of the technology beyond the education sector and into various areas of the public and private sectors, estimating "300,000 potential business customers".[25]

BBC Enterprises and Virgin released interactive video discs for education.[26] Following on from the initial Domesday content, the Ecodisc from BBC Enterprises provided an ecological simulation of Slapton Ley nature reserve designed to complement biology and ecology field trips at secondary school level. It was priced at £169 plus VAT, with one side of the disc containing the interactive content and data, the other side containing the BBC Schools Television programme Ecology and Conservation.[27] In contrast, Virgin's North Polar Expedition disc, which provided the software to support interaction on separate floppy disks instead of as LV-ROM content, received the unfavourable verdict of offering "a tired question and answer format in what should be an innovative new medium". It was priced at £228.85.[28]

The BBC's Volcanoes disc, produced in association with Oxford University Press, featured volcanic eruption footage and animated computer graphics sequences by award-winning animator, Rod Lord, together with hypertext features. The BBC's Countryside disc provided various census and agricultural datasets and was sponsored by a broad consortium of public and private sector organisations.[29] Shell Education Services offered an "interactive video project pack" intended for educational use in various subjects based on "a system developed by Shell UK to provide route maps in filling stations".[30] Epic Industrial Communications offered a "complete course in solid state electronics" for the AIV system, priced at £2300 plus VAT.[31]

Although this particular interactive video implementation had progressed away from previous "cumbersome and boring" solutions relying on the navigation of sequential-access video tape,[7](pp81) tape-based solutions persisted as competitors. For example, the tape-based VP170 Video Presenter package from Interactive Media Resources (whose system processor was packaged similarly to an Acorn second processor) and the Companion system from Bevan Technology which could control VHS-based tape and Philips LaserVision players, both apparently offered support for integration with applications using the Microtext language.[32][33]


  1. ^ Lord, Timothy (3 March 2002). "1086 Domesday Book Outlives 1986 Electronic Rival". Mountain View, California: Geeknet. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  2. ^ Cohen, Daniel J; Rosenzweig, Roy (30 August 2005). "Preserving Digital History". Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1923-4. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  3. ^ Brown, Douglas (June 2003). "Lost in Cyberspace: The BBC Domesday Project and the Challenge of Digital Preservation". Discovery Guides. Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  4. ^ Keene, Suzanne (2006). "Practical challenges: Technical obsolescence". Now you see it, now you won't: Preserving digital cultural material. London: Suzanne Keene. Archived from the original on 31 August 2006. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  5. ^ a b Lamb, John (28 March 1985). "Programming the first generation". New Scientist. IPC Magazines. p. 36. The BBC’s Domesday project, which involves 9000 schools, is one example of how information retrieval programs are used. The project is an attempt to produce an up-to-date version of the original Domesday book. Schools will collect and store information about their local communities on their own micros and then forward their findings to a central team. Eventually the data will be transferred to a videodisc, to mark the 900th anniversary of the original census in 1086.
  6. ^ a b "Domesday Plus 900". Acorn User. December 1984. pp. 28–29. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
  7. ^ a b c Telford, Joe (July 1987). "The Domesday Device". Acorn User. pp. 81–83, 85. Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  8. ^ McKie, Robin; Thorpe, Vanessa (3 March 2002). "Digital Domesday Book lasts 15 years not 1000". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 'That means we have to find a way to emulate this data, in other words to turn into a form that can be used no matter what is the computer format of the future. That is the real goal of this project.'
  9. ^ Mellor, Phil (15 January 2003). "CAMiLEON: Emulation and BBC Domesday". The Icon Bar. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  10. ^ Finney, Andy. "The BBC Domesday Project".
  11. ^ "Home". Domesday 1986. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  12. ^ "The Story of the Domesday Project". 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  13. ^ Dartford, Katy (2 March 2011). "Domesday project for BBC London". Katy Dartford's blog. Retrieved 12 April 2011. 25 years on, in May 2011, the BBC will release around 25,000 photos of British life and landscapes and approximately 150,000 pages of accompanying text, onto the Domesday Reloaded website.
  14. ^ Dennett, Melita (5 April 2011). "BBC Domesday reloaded: Call for community contributors". Brighton: North Laine Community Association. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2011. [T]he data has been extracted and the BBC would like to update the information on the discs for a new website, Domesday Reloaded.
  15. ^ Mansfield, Alex. "The Last Post". BBC Domesday Reloaded. Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  16. ^ Freeman, Eric (1 June 2011). "Rescuing the Domesday Project (part 1)". PC Plus Article. Archived from the original on 21 April 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2013. Eric Freeman's account of the BBC's Domesday Project restoration.
  17. ^ Freeman, Eric (1 June 2011). "Rescuing the Domesday Project (part 2)". PC Plus Article. Archived from the original on 21 April 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2013. Eric Freeman's account of the BBC's Domesday Project restoration.
  18. ^ "Domesday Duplicator Overview". Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  19. ^ "Introduction to the Domesday86 project". Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  20. ^ "BBC Domesday Preservation Project". Centre for Computing History. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  21. ^ "Museum Helps BBC Domesday Reloaded Project". Centre for Computing History. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  22. ^ "bbc_domesday_emulator". Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  23. ^ Tibbetts, Mike (4 November 2008). "Re: BBC Domesday Project (Leeson, RISKS-21.93)". The Risks Digest. Newcastle upon Tyne: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  24. ^ Charlesworth, Andrew (5 November 2002). "The CAMiLEON Project: Legal issues arising from the work aiming to preserve elements of the interactive multimedia work entitled "The BBC Domesday Project."". Kingston upon Hull: Information Law and Technology Unit, University of Hull. Archived from the original (Microsoft Word) on 6 February 2011. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  25. ^ "Acorn pushes its Domesday System". Micro User. June 1987. p. 9. Retrieved 31 October 2020.
  26. ^ "BBC and Virgin launch IV discs". Acorn User. March 1989. p. 13. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  27. ^ "Interactive Ecodisc". A&B Computing. August 1987. pp. 43–44. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  28. ^ Bell, Graham (March 1989). "Domesday at the North Pole". Acorn User. p. 17. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  29. ^ "Forthcoming AIV discs". A&B Computing. April 1988. p. 59. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  30. ^ "Laser Disc from Shell". Acorn User. May 1990. p. 9. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  31. ^ "Solid state electronics". A&B Computing. April 1988. p. 59. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  32. ^ "Two more IV systems". Acorn User. June 1987. p. 9. Retrieved 31 October 2020.
  33. ^ "Add-on video". Micro User. June 1987. p. 9. Retrieved 31 October 2020.

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