Britain’s first cybercafe – and thoughts on what makes for great innovation

Welcome to another outing for a post from 2010 that raises a point about innovation which still frequently intrigues me. Here’s hoping it does you too…

The combination of the tube strike necessitating a different route home and having seen a tweet about Britain’s first cybercafe made me take a slight detour on the way home to give the venue a visit. Cyberia was opened in the West End in 1994 and was either the UK’s first cybercafe or, depending on your definition, the world’s first. San Franciso’s pioneering efforts saw coffee houses with slot machines for internet access rather than a cafe with internet access from each table.

Early in this century Cyberia changed ownership and more recently the venue has been vacated, leaving just a locked-up corner building in Whitfield Street:

Site of Britain's first cybercafe

It had been founded by Ivan Pope, a multi-talented innovator who in several different roles played a key part in the development of the internet in the UK. He deserves full credit for taking the US idea, developing it and bringing it to Britain.

That sequence does though raise a question about innovation in general. If he hadn’t developed the San Francisco idea, it is hard to see how someone else wouldn’t have. It may have been in a different country and in a different year, but those slot machines would have evolved.

Much harder to answer is the question of Albert Einstein. Would someone else have come up with special relativity? Or what about Marie Curie? Her skill in isolating radium would, I suspect, have subsequently been emulated by someone else given that now we can isolate a huge range of elements. But a delay of a few years could have resulted in the cancer therapies that flowed from her work also being delayed, with a huge impact on the health for many people.

The scientist who put the question most neatly is Richard Feynman. He invented what became called Feynman Diagrams, a way of graphically illustrating quantum electrodynamic interactions. His diagrams became widely used and a basic tool for thinking about quantum electrodynamics. But as he speculated, supposing he had been a person who thought in colours rather than diagrams? Would then he have come up with a different form of visualisation, with the result that generations of physicists then thought in shades of colour rather than lines and curves?


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