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Retro computing

In the 1970s and 1980s a few far-sighted companies forged the beginnings of the home computing revolution. We take a nostalgic look back at these pioneers.

Long before Microsoft and Intel ruled the PC world, a multitude of computers battled for supremacy in the home. New arrivals from overseas giants clashed with domestic models which often appeared to have been knocked together in a backyard shed.

Compatibility? Forget it. Each of these computers was its own machine and had no intention of 'talking' to anything else.

We're talking about the home computer boom of the 1980s - a unique period in the history of computing that shaped the fate of the IT industry for many years to come.

For those who fancy reliving these golden years, we've also got details on where to buy antique classics or how to emulate them cheaply.

Down memory lane ...
The mere mention of Sinclair, Commodore or Atari to someone who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s is likely to bring on a wave of nostalgia, but why do so many people look back on these basic machines with such fondness?

Simon Webb, curator of the Museum of Computing at Swindon, reckons: "Computers are like cars - you never forget your first one.

"Back in the early 80s, computers were new and exciting, and a lot more personal too. I've seen grown men go misty-eyed when they walk into the museum."

Indeed, once the spark's been rekindled, many enthusiasts start collecting antique systems, but are they anything more than decorative reminders?

Webb reckons some classics are actually still in service: "I'm reliably informed one school in Wiltshire still uses a BBC B, and for fun, my son once did his homework on an old ZX81 and printed it out with the ZX Printer. The teacher was most impressed with the silver and black thermal printout."

While old machines can still be used for basic purposes, most people collect them for fun and track down antiques at car boot sales, on eBay or by simply rooting through the lofts of friends and relatives.

As to their worth, popular machines like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 were sold in such huge quantities that they have little commercial resale value unless they're complete with pristine boxes and packaging.

Webb explains how more obscure machines can command high prices with collectors: "The Apple I was a milestone machine and, with only 250 made, it has gone for $25,000. You're unlikely to have one in your loft, though. Models like the Sinclair ZX80 and Jupiter ACE can fetch hundreds of pounds."

The Museum of Computing is staging a retro computing event, the Classic Gaming Expo, in Croydon this July.

Back in the 1980s, the computer market was packed with machines from both huge firms and tiny startups. For every Atari, Amstrad and Apple there was a Grundy, Tangerine or Dragon. Newbrains clashed with Einsteins and Jupiters with Orics.

Standing out from the crowd were five companies which consistently delivered the goods and influenced the industry. It goes without saying that IBM was one, along with Apple, which arguably released the first truly personal computer.

Commodore had a long run with many hugely successful products, while Acorn unquestionably ruled the educational market. The fifth company was of course Sinclair, whose ubiquitous ZX range gave many people their first taste of computing. Here's the story behind all five.

Back in 1890, German immigrant and statistician Herman Hollerith won a contest held by the US Census Bureau to find a more efficient way of handling their information.

Hollerith subsequently formed the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896 and later merged with two similar companies in 1911. Reflecting the company's growing presence worldwide, the company was renamed in 1924 to International Business Machines Corporation - IBM.

IBM won many huge government contracts and in 1944, completed the Mark-I system with the help of Harvard University. Weighing five tons and measuring 50 feet long, the Mark-I could perform a division calculation in an unparalleled 12 seconds.

IBM's business had always been with institutional computing, but the 1970s saw personal computers beginning to take off. Realising it too needed a personal computer, IBM assembled one from off-the-shelf components and even bought in an operating system from a fledgling company called Microsoft.

The first IBM PC was launched in 1981, featuring a 4.77MHz Intel processor and available with the first ever version of MS-DOS.

The IBM PC XT arrived in 1983, but it was 1984's PC AT which set the standard in stone. Enormously popular, it spawned an entire industry of 'PC-compatible' clones (computers that could run the same software as the PC AT) and, of course, helped make Intel and Microsoft the giants they are today.

Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, who met through mutual friend Bill Fernandez in 1973.

Jobs and 'Woz' were 16 and 20 years old and were inspired to produce their own computer after the launch of the MITS Altair kit in 1975. This first machine, little more than a bare circuit board, became the Apple I.

After securing investment, Apple began work on the computer which would really put them on the map. The Apple II, launched in 1977 for £1,250, featured sound, colour graphics, a 1MHz processor and 4KB of memory.

Cleverly, Jobs had an attractive plastic case designed for it and a colourful logo. It was arguably the first true personal computer.

Apple's most influential machine came in 1984. Launched with a SuperBowl advert directed by Ridley Scott depicting the Orwellian Nightmare of conforming to IBM, the revolutionary Macintosh was the first affordable computer to use a mouse with a graphical user interface - graphics that represent files, folders and applications, all controlled using a novel device called a 'mouse'.

Jobs was fired a year later, but rehired as CEO in the mid '90s. 1998 saw the launch of the colourful iMac, while the more recent iPod has seen Apple become a dominant force in personal audio.

Commodore was founded by Jack Tramiel and friend Manny Kapp in 1953. They wanted a name with a military ring but 'general' and 'admiral' were already registered.

The company started life repairing broken typewriters and later moved into building calculators.

When Commodore was undercut by component suppliers assembling their own calculators, Tramiel vowed never to be at their mercy again.

He borrowed $3m and bought microchip company MOS Technologies, whose Chuck Peddle had just invented the highly affordable 6502 processor.

Believing computers were the future, Peddle then began work on a new machine. Six months later in January 1977 the all-in-one Commodore PET 2001 was launched, with a 1MHz 6502 processor and 4KB of memory.

The PET was a business machine but, recognising that home computers would also be huge, Commodore then developed the VIC-20.

Launched in 1981, it too had a 1MHz 6502 chip but sold for just £199. Commodore aggressively followed it up with the Commodore 64 in 1982, which stunned gamers with its graphics and sound.

Tramiel left Commodore in 1984 and bought Atari, launching the ST range one year later. Commodore countered with the classic Amiga, a more powerful computer that was ahead of its time with its custom chips for sound and graphics.

Acorn was founded in 1978 by Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry; Hauser had been a postdoctoral student at Cambridge, while Curry had worked with Sinclair for many years in the same town.

Acorn's first machine was the System-1, based on a design by Cambridge undergraduate Sophie Wilson.

Believing consumer machines were the way forward, Acorn's next machine was the Atom, launched in 1980 for £120 in kit-form, or £170 ready-assembled.

Acorn then set to work on the Proton, but heard the BBC was looking for a new machine to brand as part of a campaign to increase the British public's understanding of computers - Acorn jumped at the opportunity.

Given just one week, Acorn turned sketches into a working prototype which so impressed the BBC that it subsequently gave them the contract to produce the BBC Micro.

Launched in November 1981 in two versions (A and B) for £235 and £335, it was phenomenally successful, especially in schools.

Acorn followed it up with the entry-level Electron in 1983, and later developed the first commercial RISC processor, housing it in the powerful Archimedes in 1987.

Sinclair Radionics was formed in 1961 by Clive Sinclair. After finishing his A and S-levels, Sinclair worked at Practical Wireless magazine before joining a technical book publisher.

In 1961 he left books, launched Sinclair Radionics and despite initial problems with funding, launched his first product the following year - the Sinclair Micro Amplifier, costing 28s and 6d.

Sinclair later produced the first pocket calculator and pocket television, but saw the potential of computers when his MK-14 kit, launched in 1978, sold 50,000 units. Spotting a gap in the budget market, Sinclair's next models arguably kick-started the UK home computer market.

First came the ZX80 in 1980, sporting a 1MHz Z80 processor and 1KB of memory for £79 in kit-form or £99 ready-built.

One year later came the ZX81 with a similar specification but improved operation and an amazingly low price of £49 in kit-form or £69 ready-built. It reportedly sold over one million units worldwide.

Then in 1982 came the ZX Spectrum, featuring colour, sound and a squidgy rubber keyboard with either 16 or 48KB of memory for £125 or £175, ready-built.

Sinclair followed this in 1984 with the sophisticated but poorly received QL, but later sold his brand to Amstrad, who further developed the Spectrum line.

Back to the future
The sheer variety of new computers launched during the 1980s was simply unsustainable. Advanced software development could only be justified for a handful of computers and buyers soon became disillusioned with neglected machines and bust companies.

The industry needed a standard and as the 1980s drew to a close, one computer was already dominant - the IBM PC.

Thanks to numerous cheaper but compatible copies, the IBM PC gained unstoppable momentum and by the early '90s, virtually every computer company was producing compatible systems.

The exception was, of course, Apple which continues to this day with its Macintosh product line, but they've long been unable to open PC-based files and sales are a still fraction of IBM PC compatibles.

While PC hardware has standardised, the industry is no less diverse than in the 1980s. A vast range of software and peripherals are now available, allowing us to do things with our computers we'd never dreamt of. And with standardisation comes competition and lower prices than ever.

So while we can fondly remember systems of two decades ago, the IT industry has never been in a better position than it is today.

Computers of the 1980s may have been highly varied, but many had one thing in common - the Basic programming language. Basic allowed a new generation of owners to try out programming for themselves - something virtually unheard of on today's PCs.

Sophie Wilson, creator of BBC Basic, believes Basic was included on many early computers because there was the need to teach people about programming.

"There wasn't a good idea of what the machines were for, so programming was a sales point and Basic could be implemented cheaply," she says.

Steve Vickers, who developed Basic for the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum computers, agrees: "Initially there wasn't much software available so it had to be easy to write your own. Basic was also much easier than other languages."

With the advent of Windows, is programming the preserve of professionals?

"There's so much powerful software available today that a programming language for owners is unnecessary," says Vickers.

Basic still lives on, albeit in a highly evolved form. Visual Basic is a powerful programming tool for Windows, although most professional applications are now written in a language called C.

You can download a version of Basic called QBasic from Microsoft here, and find plenty of information about it from

Consoles and cabinets
Vintage games consoles and arcade machines are capable of stirring an equal level of nostalgia as home computers, and fans are well-served by numerous websites, emulators and even sources of second hand originals.

The big names in classic consoles were Atari, Sega and Nintendo, although many will also remember the IntelliVision, Vectrex and ColecoVision. There were also a wealth of TV tennis games during the mid to late 1970s.

Thanks to the vast numbers sold, it's relatively easy to pick up cheap originals from car boot sales or eBay.

The retro basement in Computer Exchange on London's Rathbone Place also stocks many collector's items. You're looking at about £100 for an original wood-effect Atari VCS from 1977.

If you don't have the time or money to track down an original console, get hold of a box which emulates them instead.

The Atari Classics 10-in-1 squeezes 10 vintage VCS games, including Asteroids, Adventure, Pong, Centipede and Missile Command, all into an original VCS console joystick. It plugs straight into a TV and costs just £20 from Firebox.

Those who want more games still should look into downloading a copy of the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which perfectly recreates arcade classics on your PC or Mac.

The actual games are stored in files called 'ROM's, although these can be hard to find due to copyright. See our feature on emulation for more information. Many addicts go about building their own MAME cabinet and a great place to start is the MameRoom.

Finally, if you're a true connoisseur with a large budget and an understanding partner, consider buying a reconditioned arcade machine from specialists like Arcade Warehouse.

Admittedly, a genuine Space Invaders in good nick might cost in excess of £1,500, but what price is true happiness?

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