Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/04/24/retro_week_computing_in_the_1980s/

Look back in Ascii: Computing in the 1980s

When computing was truly personal

By Chris Bidmead

Posted in Vintage, 24th April 2012 06:00 GMT

Retro Week

When I landed the job of Doctor Who Script Editor in 1981, I knew I needed a computer. Actually it was something I'd known since the age of 12, but back then you couldn't get started for less than half a million dollars. Now you could pick up a Sinclair ZX81 for a shade under fifty quid in kit form. But if you wanted a serious computer for writing - and I did - you needed much deeper pockets.

Sinclair Research ZX81

'Peoples of the universe, please attend carefully. The message you are about to hear is vital to the future of you all'

The IBM PC was launched in the UK that summer for a little over £2000, and shortly before Christmas the £235 BBC Micro arrived.

In fact, a number of usable machines had been coming onto the market since the late 1970s: for around £600 you could get the butt-ugly Commodore PET, and if you had around twice that to spare there was, of course, the Apple II — although lower case characters on the screen would cost you extra for a much coveted hardware plug-in called “Dan Paymer’s Lower Case Adapter”.

At one point I had my heart set on the Exidy Sorcerer. I liked its standardisation: it was built around the S100 bus and the Z80 processor and ran the CP/M operating system. Unfortunately it went out of production around this time.

Commodore Pet: Source: Cosam.org

Commodore's PET: too butt-ugly for Bidmead
Source: Steve Maddison of Cosam.org

Meanwhile, my desk was piling up with submissions from would-be Doctor Who writers. One of these was a computer buff. Andrew Stevenson's stories never made it to the screen, but he steered me in the direction of a company up in Nottingham that was importing an affordable dual-floppy CP/M machine direct from America, the Vector Graphic System B. I got to try it by promising to review it for a popular computing magazine of the time, Practical Computing.

Word Processing

I liked the Vector Graphic System B because it came with the company’s own word processor, Memorite. The machine had a unique video controller, the Flashwriter, and the whole of the text you were writing was retained in Ram rather than being written to disk. This allowed you to move through large quantities of text very quickly, essential for editing. The memory limitations restricted the maximum size of your text file, but it turned out that a single Doctor Who episode would just about fit. Yes, 48KB of Ram was plenty in those days.

Vector Graphic MZ: Source: Gord Tulloch

The author's choice: the Vector Graphic System B
Source: Gord Tulloch

The machine grew with me - after a couple of years I added a hard drive. No easy matter, as CP/M wasn't geared up for this: I needed to add about 1KB of code to the Bios, by hand, in hex.

You kids today don't know you're born.

The Mac Arrives

Meanwhile, Douglas Adams, my predecessor as Doctor Who Script Editor, hating his IBM Selectric Golfball typewriter, had gone back to a manual typewriter. I tried to persuade him that computers were the thing, and he managed to blag a DEC Rainbow, which he came to hate even more than the Selectric. Douglas was no Luddite, just a guy looking forward to the day when computers might become usable. That didn't happen for him until 1984 when the Macintosh arrived.

Apple advertises the first Mac

Apple advertises the first Macintosh

In the interim, I'd abandoned CP/M for MS-DOS, running on the Olivetti M 24, a legendary 8086 machine that was the first of the true IBM compatibles. I'd managed to borrow it from Olivetti as a long-term loan, an arrangement that involved regular visits from a rep who kept threatening to take it away. He never did, but by now I'd written enough reviews for Practical Computing to win the honour of being the first journalist in the UK to receive one of the new Macs.

The Mac had a crisp black on white - albeit tiny - display able to show print-quality fonts. It was certainly a huge change from the other computers in the field, but you didn't need to use it for more than a week to discover that its memory limitations - just 128KB - made it more or less unusable. The 512KB version released later that year was more practical, and in 1985 Aldus Pagemaker for the Macintosh arrived, heralding a new era of “desktop publishing”.


It wasn’t long after the Mac was installed that I was hooking up my first modem and watching the glowing green characters coming up on-screen almost as fast as I could read them.

The Epson HX-20. Source: Ganjatron

Why Epson thinks you should have an HX-20
Source: Ganjatron

In the second half of the 1980s, modems attained a heady 9600bps — surely as fast as you’d ever need for character-based communication. But following the lead of the Mac, Windows stumbled onto the scene in its 1.0 version (1985) and 2.0 (1987), with its data-bloating graphics. Speedwise, this put us more or less back to square one. Or would have done, if Windows had been more than half-way usable.

Portable Computing

Computing all through the 1980s was mostly about sitting at a desk. But in 1982 I managed to get hold of one of the very first true laptop computers, the Epson HX-20. It had a tiny screen, but the whole thing was no larger than an A4 notepad, and even included a small till-roll printer. On foreign visits I sometimes used this to file my copy, stuffing the printout into an envelope and mailing it to my editor.

Sir Clive Sinclair's Cambridge Z88

1980s tablet: Sir Clive Sinclair's Z88
Source: Wikimedia

I fooled around with various other laptop-style computers during the 1980s, but the one that really caught my imagination, in 1988, was Clive Sinclair’s Z88. This lightweight, A4-sized portable had a monochrome eight-line LCD screen the shape of a letterbox sitting above a full-size rubbery membrane keyboard. The thing was usable in bright sunlight, and got me out into the garden for much of my writing in those days. It ran on 4 AA batteries, which would last for a month of use.

A Computer in your Pocket

In a way there’s been nothing to touch it since. Unless, of course, you count the Microwriter Agenda

Right at the very end of the 1980s I got my first taste of what true portable computing could be. To my mind, a device can only really be classed as portable if it’s small enough to be a no-brainer that you take it with you whenever you leave base.

Microwriter Agenda. Source: South-West Retro Computing Archive

Microwriter's Agenda and Flash storage pack
Source: South-West Retro Computing Archive

Today’s smartphones are like that, but in 1989 I got my hands on a (just about) shirt-pocket electronic writing tool, designed here in the UK, that was the first — and still today, only — machine I could confidently use for writing my column in the back of a bumpy taxi, or even (on one occasion) walking down The Strip in Las Vegas.

The secret of the Microwriter Agenda was a set of five keys, one for each finger and thumb, that in combination could generate any punctuation mark or letter of the alphabet. The characters would appear on a four-line LCD screen and be stored in its 32KB Flash memory for later transfer to a computer. Get adept at this “chord typing” and you could even write fluently without looking at the screen.

Microwriter key chords

Chord dump: Microwriter's alphabet entry codes

Great Days

The 1980s was a great time for questing minds. In retrospect, I probably spent too much time questing and not enough on the TV scripts I'd got into computing to write.

I wasn't alone. The papers in those days were full of stories about small businesses going bust because their owners spent time learning to program their "micros", as they were generally known then, rather than taking care of business. The phenomenon even had a name: Computer Aided Bankruptcy.

Exidy Sorcerer. Source: The Old Computer

One of the many 1980s computer casualties: the Exidy Sorcerer
Source: The Old Computer

In subsequent years, computers aimed to become simple enough for anyone to use, while actually becoming too complicated for anyone to understand. Computing in the 1980s had its perils, but the real fun was only just starting. At the close of the decade, Windows 3.0 was just around the corner… ®