My earliest memories of computers would be from television in the 1970's and early 80's.
Programs like Space 1999 and Dr Who showed technology but it never really expanded on
its actual purpose. I suppose this was due to the fact that the 'props' had the appearance
of computers but with no real 'visual' output for the viewer to connect with. Lots of
flashing lights and beeping noises kept us wowed by the power and mystery of such equipment,
the wonder of its purpose and hope and excitement for the future.
The other observation back then was that computers were operated only by people in lab coats,
and everyone peripheral to the operation of said machine just stood there and took in
whatever the 'operator' proclaimed with serious aceptance and understanding.
As for real computers on television you may have caught sight of large mainframes with huge
tape machines spooling away with the obligatory hum's, beeps, flashing lights or the rasping
noise of a teleprinter or punch tape output. Most American television shows had
"product placement" machines like apple 2's or Commodore PET machines. The Commodore PET's
always looked the part with their sci-fi shaped housing and green screen monitors.
I cannot honestly remember seeing a real Computer, at least in the flesh as it were before I
entered Broadwey County Secondary School in Weymouth, Dorset in the middle of the 1980's.
It was a time where computers were non-existent at primary and the Secondary schools had very few.
My Secondary School computer room as I remember it in 1983 / 1984 consisted of an
Acorn BBC Model-A 16k, two Model-B's a Research Machines 380Z and a 16k Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
That was classed as having the latest tech back then.
Out of that plethora of machines I always thought that the 380Z was a 'real computer' as it
looked the part. A big black box with two 5.25" Floppy Disc Drives, a large Reset Button and a
Key to turn it on or lock it. The case had the hum of a cooling fan and the sound of that
compared to passively cooled BBC Micro's gave it an aura of power. The keyboard was external
and had a real 'claky' action to it and the icing on the cake was the 12 or 14" green screen monitor.
Oh what a beast of a machine for the young and impressionable. I was in computer heaven!
Looking at the school computer room every day made me keen to own a BBC Microcomputer Model-B.
In those early days the perceptions were, if the machine was large and flash looking then it
must be good. However, with a retail price of 399 GBP for a BBC-B, this was way beyond my budget
at that age and of my family, it was very expensive and only one other student in my year had one.
By this time I had chosen what was called Computer Studies as a study 'option' for Secondary School,
so I needed a machine to get that much needed keyboard time away from school so I could focus more
on creativity. The machine I bought? Well it turned out to be second hand from a school friend
who had decided to 'upgrade' to a Sinclair ZX Spectrum with 48k of RAM. So I bought his old
16K Sinclair ZX81 as my first 'real' machine of my own. Naturally I then needed a monitor,
so I managed to obtain an old black and white portable television set from a relation.
Black and White was perfect for the ZX81 as it did not output colour so it was pefect and cheap.
Using a ZX81 for Computer Studies at school raised its own problems as the BASIC language used
by Sinclair was not the same as BBC BASIC from Acorn. This was a problem but it did allow me to
find other ways within a program to produce roughly the same result.
Well apart from fancy 9 colour graphics, Procedures and Sound! et al.
Just prior to entering my last year at Secondary School with exams ahead I made the leap to
my first Acorn machine. I needed it badly to obtain a good result in Computer Studies.
Fortunately, Acorn had just dropped the price of the Acorn electron from 199 GBP to 139 GBP,
so off to the local Dixon's I went and bought this great little machine.
These were heady days for the home computer market, the boom was well and truly 'booming'.
Any trip to town on a weekend would require a visit to places like WH Smith where their computer
section was always packed with young aspiring wizkids (or so they thought) putting there skills
to the test but ultimately producing the same code;
10 PRINT "enter expletive here"
20 GOTO 10
The machines I remember from those days on display?
The likes of the BBC Micro, Acorn electron, Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64,
Sinclair Spectrum and ZX81, Mattel Aquarius, Oric 1 and later Oric Atmos, the DRAGON 32,
TEXAS Instruments Ti99/4a and even an Atari.
Such a choice! The shelves were stacked with software, well mainly games with the largest
proportion of such dedicated to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum line of machines.
And remember, everything was still on Cassette Tape back then.
But back to my personal Computer history.....
The electron was my most valuable asset enabling me to overtake all of the other students in my
class in programming, partly due to myself having the electron as a home computer. Some students
did not have a machine at home, and others like me previously, using non-compatible machines
like Sinclair Spectrum's and Commodore Vic-20's.
The School computer room moved and expanded, this was due to the Computer Literacy Project boosting
school equipment. Out went the Spectrum and 380Z and in came more BBC Micros. We ended up with a
12 station Econet Network with dedicated print server. Serious computing power in the mid 1980's
and it looked amazing. Of course the disadvantage back then was 14 passively cooled machines and 14
old CRT Monitors produce a huge amount of heat, having computer studies lessons in the height of
the summer were sticky to say the least. No air conditioned rooms in schools back then!
The File Server was a BBC-B with 6502 2nd Processor and Dual Double Sided 80-T 5.25" Floppy Drives.
As an aside to all of this, there were also that great series of television programs that the BBC made.
The Computer Program, Making the Most of the Micro and Micro Live.
Oh! Ian McNaught-Davis, Chris Serle et al. were fonts of knowledge back then and kept us enthusiasts
glued to our television screens as they typed in a program on a BBC-B to demonstrate some feature
or capability of the machines. It all seemed really fantastic back then, but looking back now you
can see it was all doomed to fail as nobody was really thinking about file compatibility or
getting machines of differing operating systems to talk to each other.
Another point that nobody really seriously thought of, and I am going somewhat off-topic here and will
have to use the Sinclair ZX81 / Spectrum machines as an example. The use of Business applications
with home computers. Could you really run a business or type a letter efficiently with a membrane
keyboard? Could you do fast data entry? This all being said I have the highest respect for
Sir Clive Sinclair and his work during those years, after all I did run a ZX81 for a few years.
But I believe he focused to much on miniaturisation and form over function instead of providing a
full size keyboard and scope for expansion. His products were fantastic though!
That being said this was addressed with the QL but it was too late to market.
Anyway I digress, back to my story....
All the effort with programming my electron (and playing hours of ELITE!) bore fruit and I ended up
with a Grade 1 CSE in Computer Studies. I was very annoyed with the school though as I wanted to take
the O' level exam but they were refusing to enter people for some reason, probably funding or
something, such a shame or 'sham' should I say.
The College Years
I did not attend college full time, though I did attend part time and day release as part of my
mechanical engineering apprenticeship and to this end I needed to upgrade my current Acorn electron
to cope with those needs, in particular I needed a faster storage medium ie floppy discs instead of
cassette tape and a printer so that I could produce hard copy.
The Printer was the easy part as I bought a Acorn Plus 1 expansion unit from an offer in electron user
magazine, so the printer port was covered, along with cartridge slots for applications software.
Later I tried to purchase the Acorn Plus 3 disc interface from the same magazine but stocks had run
out. In hindsight these magazine offers were Acorn trying to offload the large amount of electron
stock that they held. The electron was on borrowed time, Acorn were moving towards 32bit,
RISC OS and the Archimedes range of machines.
The newly released Acorn A3000 machine was perfect for my needs, but again, price ruled that out
for me as not only did you need to buy the machine you also needed a 'real monitor' with RGB input
to run it on and not an old portable television set. So compromise was made and I took a sideways
step in technology and bought a brand new BBC Master 128 from Watford Electronics.
A sideways step because for the 8-bit machines their time was nearly up. 32-bit was the new way
forward with Acorn skipping over 16 bit, but familiarity and relatively cheap peripherals kept me
within the 8bit world, besides there was plenty of second hand used equipment becoming available.
The BBC Master turned into my college workhorse machine. It ended up being expanded to it's full
potential with an internal ROM board, Internal 65C102 Turbo Co-processor, Hand Digitiser, Trackerball,
and a really usefull External 1Mb 80186 Co-Processor which I used as a massive RAM Disk whilst using
the Wapping Editor DTP package.
It done its job and a fine job it was.
The Acorn 8-bit BBC range were the most practical and reliable machines.
The BBC Master was showing its age in that no more software or hardware was really being developed
and I needed to stay up with modern developments. Acorn machines were in my blood and I really
wanted to move up. The next machine that caught my eye was the Acorn A4000.
It was their latest 'home' machine but yet again the price!
Yes it was expensive and so were IBM PC 'clones' of the era but RISC OS no-matter how refined, it
was causing me potential issues when considering file compatibility and media to transfer data
between the two differing systems.
So it happened, I bought a PC.
Not a branded machine but a built to order Intel 486 DX2-66 running Microsoft Windows
for Workgroups 3.11 I cannot recall the exact specs but it had 8-bit sound a small hard drive
and a very small graphics card.
The quest for machine power I found was worse with PC's than the Acorn machine's.
I believe I updated that machine with an AMD 5x86 P75 processor.
It gave the relative performance of a Pentium 75 processor on a 486 motherboard.
Following this came another built to order PC, this time running a Pentium 133 and Windows 95 OSR2.
This machine stayed with me for many years and in true PC fashion was upgraded many times.
The final Spec was something like;
MS-5129 Motherboard with a Pentium 200MMX Processor, 16 MB ram and two 3.2 GB Hard Drives.
Two CD-ROM drives, 3.5" floppy disc drive, and a Hewlett Packard Tape backup system.
Graphics was supplied by a Matrox Mystique 220 which was upgraded to 8MB of memory.
Two Creative Labs 12MB 3dfx VooDoo2 graphics cards in SLI
A Pace Modem ( Phone line 56K not a Broadband Modem !! )
A Creative Labs SoundBlaster AWE32 ISA Sound Card.
And finally a 17" IIYAMA Vision Master CRT Monitor.
This machine was my favourite, mainly because it was home built and at the time it was maxed out
in all areas so getting the most potential from is meagre 200Mhz Processor.
Next we move onto the Pentium 3 era;
I remember waiting weeks for this machine to be built as the holdup was the processor.
I had ordered a Pentium 3 700MHz and the processor was so new it was hard to get.
Graphics this time was by another fine Matrox card, the G400 Dual Head 32Mb, Sound was a Creative
Sound Blaster Live!, 312Mb RAM, and the Operating system was Windows 98SE
I ran this machine with windows 98SE until way after Microsoft had ceased supporting the system.
The processor had been upgraded again, this time to a p3-1000Mhz in a Socket 370 to Slot 1 adaptor.
Jumping Ship Part 2
My next leap was in another direction. I did not like the way that Microsoft Windows was going and
the demise of Acorn was complete, even though I could still buy a new RISC OS machine from the
likes of Castle Technology Ltd in the guise of a RISC PC, A7000+ or Iyonix, the software that I
required was unfortunately not there.
So we now move over to Linux as a daily Operating system. By now I was cobbling PC's together left
right and centre from all sorts of parts in order to make a reliable machine.
My first Distribution was Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Hardy Heron.
This was a learning curve with command line sessions to get sound and graphics drivers installed.
Next was Ubuntu 10.04.2 which to this day I think was the best and most appealing Distribution
for the desktop, with its GNOME 2 interface and smooth working environment.
Following End Of Life on 10.04 I ran a couple of versions of Linux Mint, again a good system but
I did prefer 10.04 due to the desktop being superior, I never really liked the MINT MENU.
The later versions of Ubuntu from 12.04 on with the Unity Desktop I have never liked, it seems like
a backward step, especially when searching for content on your machine. I think this 'typing' into
a search box for applications or files must be a novelty for the younger generation used to point
and click, but to those who grew up with MS-DOS and the command line it does come as a bit of a
grind, so sorry Canonical I just don't like it, you screwed up.
At the same time as this I was also running an Acorn StrongARM Risc PC which was my main website
workhorse. The machine started out as a basic StrongARM 233Mhz machine, but after some choice
upgrades it became a beast. StrongARM 233Mhz Processor, 16MB EDO Ram, 2MB VRAM, RISC OS 4.39,
ViewFinder Graphics Card, and a fully enabled UniPod that gave me USB functionality. CD & CDRW
Drives, 2 x Hard Drives and a new optical mouse using a PS2 Mouse Mini.
This machine as I have noted elswhere on the website was used for the maintenance of this website.
I used the excellent !HTML Edit software from R-Comp, with !FTPc as my upload tool.
For such an old machine it was amazing what it could do.
Jumping ship Part 3
This is my most recent jump taken around 2014 in case you are reading this from a future archive of
this website. I have now moved over to a top spec 27" i7 powered Apple iMac in late 2014 and added
a 13" Macbook Pro in 2016. The transition from linux to OS X was so easy, the desktop environment
is more fluid but the layout is similar so you don't get lost.
I still run a linux machine, an old Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop running Linux Mint 18 used for
website maintenance and the general trying out of Linux Distributions that the hardware can take.
Honestly, if I ever have to change from OS X then my next choice would be a custom built machine
running Linux again. It has come so far over the years and even though there are many forks and
different distributions, it can be said that it holds its ground for everyday and corporate use.
So there we have a potted history of my computing life as of 2018.
I am just so glad that I was born at a time where I experienced the UK Computer boom of the 80's
where all those great companies were trying to gain dominance of a new and exciting market,
most failed in the long term, but all will be fondly remembered for the contribution they made
to computer science, innovation and sheer determination.
I thank them all, they shaped my life, showed me the future, and gave me a creative edge.
Richard Hall ( August 2018 ).
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