The Video Genie

No, not magical sprite contained in a video recorder, but another also-ran computer of the 80s. It seems to be compatible with the TRS-80, but it’s unclear if it’s a simple clone, or something more sophisticated. The most startling feature, at least for us in the internet-age, is the integrated cassette recorder. Saving your BASIC program to cassette (and hoping it will load back in again) seems a doubly redundant activity – I’ve not played a music cassette for years, let alone tried to use one as a storage medium. My memories of using cassettes are mainly of the bitter tears of frustration after the tape machine ate the only copy of my long-laboured-over piece of code…

Christmas 1981

More from CVG December 1981. Here we have the ‘Christmas Parade’ of all that’s best in handheld gaming. I remember seeing the LED Grand Prix game, and I definitely remember playing with Big Trak at my friend Darren’s house. Big Trak was a programmable truck which could remember a short sequence of moves and replay them, not quite as exciting as it appeared on the TV ads, but certainly head-and-shoulders above any non-programmable trucks…

In the same issue we see an advert for a Game & Watch. Really the first ‘pocketable’ computer game, with an LCD screen and annoying bleeps. Produced by Nintendo, but here appearing under the brand name of CGL, each model featured a single game [this one is a sort of 'Lion Taming' game] and a clock. The promise of ‘Game A’ and ‘Game B’ was a bit of a con, since ‘Game B’ was exactly the same as ‘Game A’, but slightly faster. However, despite these limitations, ownership of a Game&Watch in the early 80s guaranteed you’d be the most popular kid in the playground…

At last. A watch that's fun.

At last. A watch that's fun.

Your Ups and Downs at the touch of a button

Since the dawn of personal computing there has been the Biorhythms program. Desparate for something to show to the powerful computational power [and perhaps the graphics too] of your new machine, we would dutifully type in the program which would map our physical, emotional and intellectual ‘cycles’ so we could explain away our miserable mood swings. A pointless and scientifically unfounded exercise, but one that may result in some pretty graphs on the screen.

Here is a dedicated device for calculating these meaningless equations. Type in your birthdate and be instantly rewarded with three LED integers, use these numbers to explain to your mum why you haven’t tidied your bedroom, not done your homework, or why you need a sick-note to get of PE this week – worth every penny of £19.95

red light indicates critical period

red light indicates critical period

Sinclair ZX Spectrum from only £125!

It seems many of the visitors to retrogeek are spectrum enthusiasts, for your delictation here is the original 2-page spread advert from 1982. Notable not only for the hyperbole of the descriptions, but also the glamorous assistant shown squelching his way into the world-of-tomorrow on his tiny rubber keyboard.

Also of note is the ‘coming soon’ ZX Microdrive, a strange early storage device with a loop of cassette tape stuffed into a plastic cartridge. Holding up to 100k with a seek time of 3.5 seconds it promised simplicity and speed, but delivered tangled tape, data-loss and despair.

ZX Microdrive

ZX Microdrive

The Print’n'Plotter Jotter

In a world where ‘Photoshop’ has become a verb, it’s often hard to remember the lengths one had to go to to generate an image on an early home computer. When you’re working with a machine with only a few K of video RAM the options are quite limited, and of course there was no drawing or painting software available, which meant your masterpiece had to be poked and plotted onto the screen pixel by pixel.

This little gem comes from a November 1982 issue of Popular Computing Weekly and is unique in that it’s neither an ad for hardware nor software, but a pad of paper and a set of pens (“set of seven pens for each computer colour”). Effectively this is a book of gridded tracing paper, which claims to help convert your “illustrations, maps, charts, photos etc” into a set of pixel locations on your 256×192 screen. I never bought one myself, preferring to draw my 8×8 sprites in the back of my maths homework book…

every numbered co-ordinate for the 45,056 pixels!

Read this ad to your wife

There are two things to say about this post:

  1. The Dragon 32 was another also-ran of the post-spectrum UK home computing boom. It had the advantage of a decent keyboard, and represented a decent buy in terms of specifications, but didn’t really engender the support of the developer community and Welsh company producing them collapsed in 1984.
  2. ‘Read this ad to your wife’!? The premise appears to be that your wife [all computer users are married hetrosexual males] would rather you bought her a new washing machine than waste your money on a computer. Thankfully she’ll be won over by your erudite arguments on the virtues of 32k of RAM, a whole 9 different colours of graphics and stunning five octaves of monophonic sound.

go FORTH and multiply

BASIC was the lingua-franca of personal computers in the 80s, whether we can hold Bill Gates entirely responsible for that is debatable, but that’s the way it was. Here we see a plucky young machine bucking the trend and coming pre-installed with FORTH on it’s tiny electronic brain.

This advert from 1982 is for the ‘Jupiter Ace‘ ['Uranus Cool' being rejected early in the product-naming cycle, I suspect]. Apparently it’s ‘Probably the fastest microcomputer in the universe’ with a blazing 3.25MHz processor. Consider that a PC these days is probably running at 3.25GHz on multiple cores – a speed increase of a thousand-fold at least. It also boasts a stunnning 8K of ROM [where that FORTH compiler is stored] and 3k of RAM – closer inspection of the specifications reveals that only 1k is availble for code, the other 2k for the graphics. To put that into some perspective, the thumbnail JPEG image below is 48k in size…

Probably the fastest microcomputer in the universe

my first computer

WH Smiths brought computing to the masses in the UK, there’s no denying it. With a branch in any medium sized town, it was the first place most people saw a real live computer. The device in question was the Sinclair ZX81, a small black plastic rectangle, hooked up to a TV set and glued to a display case. To my 10 year old self it was the future, a field of endless potential. I badgered my parents, and was rewarded on Christmas morning 1981.

The glorious device came equipped with 1k of RAM which would run out before you could actually fill the screen with text. Storage consisted of a tape deck [not included] with which to record cassettes full of screetching code which would take minutes to load. I had mine hooked up to a black and white portable sony tv, and I was as happy as a small boy could be.

Backing the wrong horse.

What is sometimes forgotten about the dawn of home computing is that there were a surprising numbers of ‘also ran’ technologies. For each success story like the zx spectrum or atari 2600, there were half a dozen other machines that were produced in small numbers, bought by unsuspecting suckers [or more likely, ill informed parents] which never quite took off.

Here we take a look at a few of them, from 1981.

the worlds first welsh computer?

the worlds first welsh computer?

£595 is no small amount of money, and in 1981 it would be considered a fortune. We’d better be getting something good for that kind of outlay. Let’s see 255×335 high resolution graphics, 16 colours, 48k of RAM. Not bad. But wait, there’s more “Unique graphical-sound commands for Smooth Music, random frequencies and enveloped sound!” – there’s nothing like ‘random frequencies’ to bring out the Kid 606 in us all.

The worlds most advanced TV game.

The worlds most advanced TV game.

The Mattel TV game boasts 20 games, and a’coming soon’ keyboard allowing you to run Microsoft BASIC! Just imagine the squeals of dissapointment as this was opened on Christmas morning…

Database! TV! Game!

Database! TV! Game!

Perhaps the ‘reduced price’ should be a clue that this is a doomed console, the promise of ’14 games’ doesn’t inspire much excitement either. However, what’s most impressive is that someone honestly believed that calling their product ‘Database TV game’ would result in any sales at all. In my mind I picture happy hours spent debugging LEFT JOIN sql problems, but alas I fear this was not the case…