Home Computing – RetroTech

Whenever I think of the term ‘home computing’ I inevitably end up with a picture of this in my mind:

This is a ZX Spectrum circa 1982. Its a computer. Its a computer for home use that boasted a massive 16KB of RAM, an amazingly cumbersome rubber keyboard and in the days way before things like the internet, CDs, flash drives or even floppy disks we loaded and saved our programs via audio cassettes….and it sounded like this.

We became bedroom coders and we meticulously copied lines and lines of code from computer hobbyist magazines….that seldom worked…..although saying that there is the story of the mysterious Matthew Smith and Manic Miner – a game that changed how we think about gaming and a source of joy for anyone of my generation.

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Looking back on this machine and the hype that surrounded it nearly 35 years later doesn’t just make me feel extremely old it also resonates with some interesting concepts and development that predate the 1980s boom of home computing in the UK and can still be seen in the hyper connected internet world of 2014.

Lets take a whistle stop tour of the history of computing and some of its pioneers and innovators so we can see how all this fits together. Fortunately for us we can take this tour via the internet as opposed to me writing about 15 million lines of code that doesn’t run properly:

Lets start at the end of WW2. During the war computers were being used and developed to help deal with complex calculations around code making and breaking, designing ballistic systems, RADAR and so on but during the post war period the focus began to shift to how these machines might be used for other purposes.

Its amazing to think that back in the mid to late 1940s people like Vaneveer Bush and Joseph Licklider were proposing futuristic uses for the calculator machine that included the ‘Intergalactic Computer Network’, the MEMEX machine (the computer as MEMory EXtender) and how these machines might be used in education and even how these machines might become an essential part of home life.

‘A computer in every home’ then, isn’t such a new idea and as time rolled on with Thomas J Watson (Senior and Junior) at IBM stirring technical revolutions in the business world, the likes of Ted Nelson and Douglas Englebart with ideas of the social potential of computer networks and the invention of the mouse, then Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the homebrew computer club that started the home computer revolution in 1975 in California…

Thats a very potted history of the computer that bring us to somewhere around 1982 and a small me on Christmas morning in the Welsh valleys confronted with a ZX Spectrum and a few cassette tapes purporting to be games.

So how did this come to pass? California to Maesteg? High level futuristic technologies and academic dialogue to Hungry Horace and JetPac?

The main reason that home computing was even possible in the late 1970s and 80s was down to the decreasing cost of  microprocessors (silicon chips) as developments allowed more ‘power’ to be put inside these processors in accordance with a 1965 observation by Gordon E. Moore that gave rise to ‘Moores Law’  – a law that states that the number of transistors that can be crammed into a microchip will double every two years.

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This exponential growth of computing power coupled with decreasing manufacturing costs meant that hobbyists and electronics enthusiasts could now afford to start playing with these microchips and start building small computers for themselves.

This DIY approach pioneered by the homebrew computer club in California in the mid 1970s became the catalyst for the realisation of the global computer revolution that has shaped our 21st century lives: from the devices we carry in our pockets, to how we access information, how we interact with one another, how global economics are shaped and everything else powered by those little bits of silicone…

In 1980 as a response to an ITV documentary called ‘The Mighty Micro’ which foretold the potential of the emerging home computer revolution, the UK Government started to ask questions about what this would mean for the economy, education and the future of the country.

BBC_Micro_Front_Restored.jpg As a response, the BBCs ‘Computer Literacy Project’ was developed and its own computer for home and education was released a few years later – the BBC Micro. This computer (built by Chris Curry’s Acorn Computers) was the cornerstone of the BBCs new educational drive around computing that in 1982 led to ‘The Computer Programme’ on BBC 2 as a means of showing the viewing public what these small low cost computers were capable of. The series was successful enough for two series to follow it: Making the Most of the Micro in 1983 and Micro Live from 1984 until 1987. You can get watch (and probably giggle) at some clips of these series online if you fancy a bit of 80s BBC nostalgia….

This machine was set to become part of our memories of school from the late 1980s until the arrival of the now ubiquitous Microsoft Windows computers – but I think most people of this generation will have fond memories of when every now and again your teacher would let you have a go on ‘Chuckie Egg’ – THE BBC Micro game:

If you have fond memories of this game (like me) then you can play it online. Go Chuckie Egg!!!

Thats not the whole story though. Far from it. As well as the BBC Micro that helped realise 1940s aspirations of computers as educational tools there were numerous other machines around that helped bring the computer revolution into our living rooms so we could all witness and participate in the nail biting 10 minute wait to see if our cassette based games would load on our old TVs or crash at the last minute making us jiggle the cables, check our tape players volume level and generally mutter under our breath.

Ah, technology hasn’t changed that much…its just that these days we shout at a different, flatter screen with 32 million HD colours instead of a black and white 8-bit display that bleeps at us.

Anyway, there were a lot of other computers to choose from and one of the key issues was price. In the 1980s a BBC Micro would cost you a whopping £400 but as early as 1980 Science of Cambridge Ltd. (later to be better known as Sinclair Research) were selling their black and white ZX-80 for under £100 (or available in kit form for the geek enthusiast for as little as £79.95).

Sir Clive Sinclair’s DIY computer kit became a market leader due to its affordability and the way in which its user community took to its 8-bit ability to write and play games. Fast forward to 1982 and Sinclair was releasing the all new ZX Spectrum (with the entry level Spectrum 16 still coming in for less than £130). To date there have been some 24,000 software releases for the Spectrum and that interestingly enough includes 100 new titles in 2012 plus a new bluetooth version of the Spectrum announced in 2014.

images An incredible legacy and testament indeed to the influence of the machine that earned Sinclair a knighthood for services to British industry and a product viewed by many to be the kickstarter for the whole IT industry in the UK.

Of course if we’re talking about Sinclair its only fair to mention Acorn and in particular its co-founder Chris Curry. The rivalry between the two men and the technologies they helped develop has become the stuff of legend and was to eventually lead to the demise of perhaps one of the most enigmatic people in British industry over the last 100 years.

Acorn Computers was founded in 1979 by Curry and his long term collaborator Hermann Hauser. One of its earliest computers was the much aligned (and missed) Acorn Electron which for many here in the UK represented their first taste of the home computing revolution.

The legendary rivalry between Acorn and Sinclair was not just about the growing competetiveness of the home computer market but also lay in the production of the BBC Micro. Acorn won the contract from the BBC due apparently to Aunties feeling that the Sinclair computers were more of a hobbyist machine than a serious computer that could revolutionise the home and educational potential wrapped up in the home computer revolution.

This rivalry though had a long standing basis – Curry and Hausner had both worked for Sinclair during the 1960s and 70s, helping develop the ill fated Sinclair Black Watch. Curry eventually resigned from Sinclair (then the Science of Cambridge) after Sir Clive refused to pursue Hausner and Curry’s interest in the microcomputer kit – a development that led to the ZX series of computers.

The BBC Micro was however to be the final straw and led to one of the most legendary confrontations between the hot headed Sinclair and the ambitious Curry in a pub bar in London. Despite the BBCs rejection of Sinclair as a contender for its Micro contract Acorn seem to have only just managed to pass muster. The story goes that the BBC called Acorn on a Monday wanting to see a working prototype the following Friday but the Acorn ‘Proton’ was not even switched on until a few hours before the BBC arrived in Cambridge as the team struggled to build a functioning version.

This and many other historic developments that shaped the modern IT world especially here in the UK were dramatised in the great BBC documentary ‘Micro Men’ in 2009 – a warm and sometimes comic depiction of the birth of home computing and well worth a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIcAyFVK0gE.

The battle between the BBC Micro and the Spectrum went on through the 1980s although it was the Spectrum that triumphed in economic (and perhaps social) terms as games developers began to capitalise on the popularity and low cost of the unit. In turn bedroom developers began writing and releasing their own games fostering a growing boom in entrepreneurship that captured the spirit of the time. The print industry also began to capitalise on the success of these machines and teenage gamers became reviewers and writers and sharers of code.

By 1990 however the UK ‘garden shed’ tinkering and making sensibilities that had been a catalyst for the revolution were beginning to show signs of wear as the 16-bit revolution appeared on the horizon. Sinclair sold the Spectrum to Amstrad but even with the release of the 16-bit Spectrum + the global growth of the UK giants of Microsoft, Apple and Commodore spelled the end of this peculiarly British computer revolution.

Sir Clive pedalled into the distance in his (final) ill-fated C5; a three wheeled battery powered bicycle/car hybrid with a handlebar steering system under the seat.article-1326823-01FD44E10000044D-596_634x436.jpg

At the same time the BBC Micro was retired after a total sales record of some 1.5 million units (with the Spectrum selling a massive 5 million).

So by the early 1990s the playground arguments about the Commodore 64 vs the ZX Spectrum vs BBCs groundbreaking 3D ‘Elite’ space exploration game began to be replaced by the Apple vs Microsoft debate and computers perhaps became machines that were ‘used’ as opposed to ‘programmed’ with the inexorable rise of the closed software operating systems OSX and Windows.

At this point lets jump back into our internet time machine and fast forward through more pioneers and hopefully arrive in 2014:

So there was Tim Berners Lee and Linus Torvalds with new thinking around networks, the internet and the software to run it, Larry Page and Sergy Brins started Google-ing and Mark Zuckerberg brought us the blue world of social networking and the funny cat picture revolution. So that brings us bang up to date but if we just take a minute to have a look around us and see what’s happening at the moment in terms of home computing we can make out some of the legacy of the early pioneers and some reflections of the ‘home-brew’ attitude that helped kick start the home computer revolution in the first place. Today there seems to be a growing fascination and uptake of DIY approaches that are not dissimilar to the early days of Spectrum and Acorn as people begin to take on the hardware and software yet again. Programming in bedrooms, tinkering with robots in sheds, automating their homes and building machines and systems from scratch….. …and somewhere among all this history and development is a 10 year old me waiting for Hungry Horace to load on a Christmas morning in Maesteg.

Do you have memories of your first computer? Maybe it was an early Windows machine? Were you one of those people that enjoyed graphics of the Commodore 64? Perhaps you had a Dragon 32? A Vic-20? An Amstrad? Whatever your story we’d love to hear from you.

Further Links and Reading:

The 10 greatest flops in computer history: They were way ahead of their time and could have advanced the power of mass home computing by years. But these revolutionary concepts became the biggest failures in digital history. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5132085/The-10-greatest-flops-in-computer-history.html

The history of the computing industry is a fascinating subject. In a short space of time, it has created the world’s wealthiest man, witnessed some of the worst business decisions on record and generated the largest first year profits for any company in modern history! http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/

The history of home computing: 1982 – 2012 http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/features/desktop-pc/3358626/history-of-home-computing-1982-2012/?pn=1

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