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

Bomb the bass

The eighties also saw computers entering the realm of music. As a sometime electronic musician myself, I’ve long had an interest in machines that emit bleeps, squawks and pops and much of my early computing life was trying to coax interesting noises out of machines ill-designed to produce them. In coming posts we’ll look at quite how tricky that was…

However, here we have a review of a ‘proper’ musical computer the Roland TR808, not the first ‘drum machine’, but certainly the most influential. At the time of release in 1982 the machine was criticised for the ‘heavy’ bass drum sound [see the review below], but by the late eighties, with the emergence of Acid House and techno, the TR808 and it’s little brother the TB303 bassline became legendary – that very ‘heavy’ bass sound being precisely the feature which made the machine so desirable. In fact the 808 is still highly sought-after even today, changing hands for prices in excess of it’s (not inconsiderable) original 1982 price, something that cannot be said for much of the technology featured on this blog.

Rumours

If you spend any time following technology news on the internet, you’ll know it’s over-run with rumours of new products [particularly in the case of a fruit-named company from Cupertino]. In the 80s it was just the same. Check out this News page from PCWs debut issue. Here we see the first rumour of the ZX Spectrum, referred to here as ‘the ZX82′ *and* the Commodore MAX.

I particularly like the claim that the new Sinclair machine will have ‘a mechanical keyboard with ‘feel’ similar to a typewriter’. When the machine came out, with it’s squishy rubber keyboard, many pundits claimed it had the consistency of ‘dead flesh’…

GOTO considered helpful.

Popular Computing Weekly arrived in April 1982, the first weekly computer magazine in the UK [or anywhere, I suspect]. One of the notable features of the earlier editions was the fantastic cover art which attempted to represent the scenarios of the 8bit games inside. Here’s the cover of issue #1

Space Amaze

Space Amaze

It’s not quite clear what’s going on, there’s a couple of spaceships, some lightning [always plenty of lightning in space] and a giant ZX81 keyboard. Inside we can find the dazzling description of the game:

In the depths of space surrounding the interstellar shipping lanes of the plaet Urth a desparate battle is being fought. The shipping lanes must be kept clear of space mines being dropped by the evil Zexions.

However, this runs on a 1k ZX81, so perhaps the grand description is rather over-egging the pudding. Below is the code, it should be pretty clear that this is not a particularly complex game, with your ship being represented with ‘<' and the aliens as '.' and '*' - not quite the epic scene hinted at on the cover, but these were simpler times and we used our imaginations...

Space Amaze Listing

Computer magazines in the 80s were filled with such listings, and long arduous hours were spent typing them in, desparately hoping that the machine wouldn’t overheat, or the RAM pack fall out before you’d finished.

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…

Answering machine

ah 1981, just as I was marvelling at dayglo socks, more business oriented minds were looking for ways to replace their secretaries with machines. One such device is featured here – the telephone answering machine. Complete with clunky mechanical buttons, this 24 hour slave will record your calls on a C90 cassette, so you never miss that late-night business opportunity… A snip at £135.

Post Office Approved!

Post Office Approved!



Nice to see that despite the Button telephone bursting onto the scene a mere 9 years earlier, this particular add still sports the classic rotary dialing phone…