Tag Archives: history

The Computers That Made Britain

I’m still fascinated by the computers of the eighties. Without well known standards, every machine was different, not only from those of other manufacturers but also older machines from the same company. As as user it was terrible. Back the wrong horse and you’d be stuck with a working computer with no software and no one else to share your disappointment with.

But looking back, there’s a huge diversity of ideas all leaping onto the market in just a few years. Naturally, some of those ideas were terrible. Many machines were rushed and buggy, precisely because there was so much competition. Going on sale at the right time could make or break a machine.

Tim Danton’s “The Computers That Made Britain” is the story of a few of those machines.

He covers all the obvious ones, like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro, and others that I’ve not seen the stories of before, like the PCW8256.

While it’s called “The Computers That Made Britain” rather than “Computers that were made in Britain,” I would argue with some entries. The Apple II is certainly an important computer but, as noted in the book, they didn’t sell well in the UK. Our school literally had one, and I think that’s the only one I’ve ever seen “in the wild.” Sales obviously isn’t the only criterion, but the presence of these machines presumably pushed out the New Brain and the Cambridge Z88 (among others). Since this book is about the computers than made Britain, I would have liked to see more about them and less about the already well documented American machines like the Apples and IBMs.

The chapters are largely standalone, meaning you don’t need to read them in order. I read about the machines I’ve owned first, before completing a second pass on the remaining ones. They’re invariably well researched, including interviews with the protagonists. Some machines get more love than others, though. Talking about the Spectrum, it finishes with a detailed look at all the subsequent machines, right up to the Spectrum Next, though curiously missing the SAM Coupe. But the Archimedes gets nothing, even though there was a range of machines. Did they run out of time or was there a page count?

But those are minor complaints for an otherwise well put together book. Recommended.

It’s published by the company that makes Raspberry Pis, which you could argue is the spiritual successor to the Sinclair and Acorn machine. You can download the book for free, but you should buy it! The above link is for Amazon, but if you’re near Cambridge you should pop into the Raspberry Pi store and pick up your copy there instead.

If this is your kind of book, I would also recommend “Digital Retro” and “Home Computers: 100 Icons that defined a digital generation,” both of which are more photography books than stories.

War?

Eric Schmidt says Google is the new Microsoft and it’s winning the war against Apple. I think he’s missing some perspective.

One of the key things that Steve Jobs realised when he returned to Apple in the late nineties was that the industry is not necessarily a zero sum game.

We have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.

The current situation is not identical but I think that the lessons might be substantially the same. While Google believe that they’re winning it’s not clear to me that they’re playing the same game as Apple and Microsoft. It’s like saying that you’re winning at Scrabble when your opponent is playing Chess; sure, you played some great words on triple letter scores, but your chances of getting check-mate are limited.

For all Google’s efforts and marketshare, most web traffic and ad impressions — the real metric that they’re interested in — still comes from iOS. They largely succeeded in commoditising the smartphone, unfortunately their users either don’t surf the web much or, in the case of Android-derived devices like the Kindle Fire, do but don’t go via Google.

Would they not be better toning down the rhetoric and figuring out how everyone can play nicely? War makes for good headlines but often ends in everyone losing.

For Google to win, Apple does not have to lose.

Spectrum

You’ve probably seen that it’s the Sinclair Spectrum’s thirtieth birthday today. There are lots of great retrospectives — this is probably the best single source I read — so I’m not going to rehash all that. But I thought it might be worth a few words of my own.

Like many Brits my age, the Spectrum was my first computer. Technically it was the family computer, but after a few weeks I was pretty much the only one who used it.

I remember some of the first few hours using it. I remember, for example, ignoring most of the preamble in the manual and diving straight into typing in a programming example. Those who have used a Spectrum will realise that you can’t just type in code; you need to use special keyboard combinations to get the keywords to appear on screen. I didn’t know about that.

After a while I managed to persuade to let me type in the code. The computer didn’t really understand it and I didn’t know why. I can’t remember whether I found the right section in the manual before having to go to bed but even in my confusion I knew that I was hooked.

And really that was the start of my career in IT. I started really wanting to play games but I ended up spending more and more time programming and less and less loading Bomb Jack. Usually I saw something neat in a program and though “How do they do that?” Then I’d try to figure out what they’d done. I was quite proud of making some text slowly fade into view and then gradually disappear again. Obviously that was after the obligatory:

10 PRINT "Stephen was here!"
20 GO TO 10

I remember all that surprisingly well. Which makes the following line all the more shocking:

It may have been startlingly modern once, but at 30, the Sinclair Spectrum is as close in time to the world’s first commercial computers of the 50s as it is to the latest iPad.

The first commercial computers where created in the early fifties. The first computers — at least computers you’d kind of recognise as computers — were only built a few years before that. Computers are so powerful and connected these days that it’s difficult for me to remember what I even did with them. I wonder what we’ll make of the iPad in a few decades? I’m sure it’ll look just as dated.

The last thing I wanted to mention was about that weird, unique program entry system. In short, each key had a number of different keywords printed on it. The J key, for example, had LOAD (used to load a program from tape), VAL, VAL$ and the minus sign. When you entered code, the editor would be in one of a number of modes and, in addition to shift, there was a key called “Symbol Shift.”

I’ve never seen a sensible explanation for this. They all seem to say it was “easier” or a cue for users so they’d know all the valid keywords to Sinclair Basic. I never bought this. Is it really easier to remember a bunch of non-standard keyboard shortcuts rather than just type? Don’t think so.

And then when I was at university I did a course on compilers, the software that is used to turn human readable code into the binary gibberish that a computer can actually run.

The interesting bit was all around the grammars and recursive descent parsers and the mental challenge of writing a program that wrote other programs. But the first step of the process is called lexical analysis, which takes the jumble of letter that is your program and converts them into “words” that can be processed more easily, so PRINT is a keyword, 123.4 is a number and “Hello” is some text.

Given the resource limitations of writing a whole operating system and BASIC interpreter in 16k, my guess is that it was easier to write a strange keyboard entry system than a lexer.

Can anyone comment on the accuracy of this guess?

But back to nostalgia. From hazy memories, to university, to wild speculation and the iPad. We’ve come a long way. But it was the Sinclair Spectrum that started it all for me. Thank you Clive Sinclair!

My delicious.com bookmarks for December 25th through January 9th

  • The Myth of Japan’s Failure – "Japan has succeeded in delivering an increasingly affluent lifestyle to its people despite the financial crash. In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story."
  • Man Embraces Useless Machines, and Absurdity Ensues – Technology: making life simpler.
  • Merry – Sat here with my newborn son and wife, with all my family staying nearby, this post rang bells. It's sometimes important to realise what you have.

My delicious.com bookmarks for December 16th through December 21st

  • On this day in 1996, Apple acquired NeXT – Fifteen years ago today Apple effectively started its upward trajectory.
  • Why big companies can’t change – "At the polar opposite position from big industrial companies sit startups, nearly every one of which begins with an effortless expression of why? Big companies ask What? then How? but almost never Why?"
  • Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011 – "I’m not going to say R.I.P. I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is at rest. I don’t think there is anything left of him to rest. I think he is dead. But tonight, I’ll be raising a glass of Scotch in his honor. The world is a better place because he was in it, and it is a sadder, less interesting place now that he’s not."

My delicious.com bookmarks for November 23rd through November 30th

  • The BBC Micro turns 30 – Pretty much every Brit around my age will remember the Model B. It felt so… professional after using the Sinclair Spectrum!
  • Thanksgiving Is Un-American – Socialism and illegal immigration… Why thanksgiving is un-American.
  • Coders are creatives too: Where’s our love? – "How did a person whose greatest educational achievement is crayoning without going over the lines get termed 'a creative', when the people who built our world are dismissed as geeks and bottom feeders?"