MY EARLY DAYS WITH COMPUTERS
By Robin Morom (K4R)
As I was tidying out my computer cupboard the other day - which I
am careful to do about every ten years whether it needs it or not - I
came across some old magazines and other papers which set me thinking
about my early involvement with the hobby and felt that some members
might be interested in my memories.
In June 1977 I was in hospital and one of my visitors brought me
a copy of Wireless World. As it was the only thing I had to read I
devoured it thoroughly. There was an article on "Using a
Microcomputer" which began "Many electronic engineers will have had
little or no experience of the computer world and its specialised
language." Remember, this was 17 years ago. On the adverts pages I saw
that it was possible to obtain a 'Prime 200 computer with 16k memory
with software (includes BASIC) for a mere £4750.00. Current list price
exceeds £13,000'. At a cheaper level Marshalls were offering the SC/MP
Introkit at £68.61 and Keyboard kit (looked like a pocket calculator
to me) for £65.84. On another page was the Intercept Jnr for £196.39.
This was battery operated and had a 12 bit microprocessor and 8 digit
LED display and a 12 key keyboard. Extra RAM with 1024 words was
£96.51. (Like all other prices in this article these are prices ruling
at the time. Please remember that there has been considerable
inflation since then.)
So what did I know about computers in those days? Well,
practically nothing, actually. True, I had been on a guided tour of
LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) in 1952 or thereabouts. It wasn't
working at the time but apparently this was a fairly common state of
affairs. Not surprising really, since it had 20,000 valves (this is
only from my memory, don't quote me) and developed something like 50KW
of surplus heat, wasted in the summer time and piped to other rooms in
the building in the winter. Strangely enough this did not encourage me
to rush home and start building my own computer. Anyway, at the time
most of the SF stories were forecasting that computers would become as
big as cities, and there were many serious suggestions that it would
only need three (or maybe it was four) gigantic computers to do all
the calculations for the whole world!
When I left hospital for a period of convalescence at home I was
looking for something to fill the time. I was torn between trying to
build a computer and one of the electronic organ kits which Maplin
were advertising in the same copy of Wireless World. In the end the
organ won and I couldn't afford both. However I kept an eye on the
computer kits on offer in the hope of one day building one. In
September 1977 Practical Electronics started to publish details of
their 'Champ' family. This consisted of three units, the
microprocessor unit (Champ itself), a PROM programmer, and a PROM
eraser. It was based on the 4040 chip (4 bit), had a pocket calculator
type keyboard and LED display and 512 bytes of RAM. To keep the price
down it was built on veroboard. The main board had 25 chips. A kit of
the main 10 cost £49.68. The total building cost was not specified.
Early in 1978 several computers were being advertised, but they
were very incomplete by today's standards. For example there was the
Scrumpi 2 - 768 bytes of RAM and 512 bytes of PROM - basic kit (no RAM
or ROM) £55.56 - no keyboard or display of course. Another board was
the Nascom 1 - this one had a full keyboard and was priced at £197.50
plus VAT - 8% at that time, but it needed a lot of add-ons to be
really useful. In June 1978 came the MK14 kit from Science of
Cambridge, a breakthrough in price at £39.95 plus VAT. For this you
got a hexadecimal keyboard, 8-digit LED display, 512 bytes of PROM and
256 BYTES of RAM. By mid 1978 there were numerous 'keys and lamps'
systems available. These were hex only with about 256 bytes of RAM or
even less. By now there were also a number of very primitive (today)
games machines to play tennis, squash, etc on a black and white TV.
The kits tended to be slightly under £30.
In September 1978 Practical Electronics started a series of
articles on building an ANALOGUE computer! I bet you'd forgotten there
was such a thing.
Also in that month was what looked to me like the first 'proper'
computer. This was the Apple II. It had a full typewriter keyboard and
display of 24 lines of 40 characters on a mono or colour TV. There
were various ports including printer and paddles. Sound was also
available, though rather limited. This was it! Then I saw the price.
With 4K RAM - £995.00 or in stages up to 48K Ram at £1,900. Basic on
tape - £20 extra. Since I had just bought a brand new van for about
half this I felt it was a bit out of my range.
All was not lost however. By the end of 1978 there was a kit from
Technomatic to provide a VDU display of 16 lines by 64 characters on a
TV - black and white of course - colour was hardly imaginable. The kit
was £49 (or £69 for the assembled board). This was not a computer of
course but only the display - still, it was an interesting
development. I still wanted a proper computer, although the organ was
still in the building stage. (Yes, it was finished eventually and
worked well. Thank you for asking.)
Into 1979. Several more items on the market.
The Elf II at £99.95 plus VAT. Hex keyboard, 256 byte RAM. No
sound or colour but expansions promised.
Kim. Hex keyboard again. Starting kit £160.92. 8k RAM card
£193.00. VDU interface £150.00
Also now came the Exidy Sorceror, the Pet, Tandy TRS 80, Nascom
I, Research Machines 380Z, Lyme 4000 and many more. Some of these
proved successful but many fell by the wayside. What I wanted was to
have a keyboard and VDU system which were then quaintly known as
'glass teletypes'. The idea of having a disc drive was not a serious
consideration due to the very high cost, probably more than the
computer itself, and printers were also out of reach.
Then it happened! March 1979 and the Ohio Superboard was
announced. This appeared to be just what I wanted. Full keyboard.
Video output to black and white monitor or TV. Microsoft Basic in 8k
ROM. 4k RAM plus dedicated 1k video RAM. Cassette interface. It even
had a lower case character set - not by any means standard in those
days. It was £249.00 plus VAT. No case, just the bare board but who
wants a case anyway? The trouble was that they were not to be had.
They were promised 'soon'. 'Coming from the States any time now.' 'Pay
a £10 deposit and we'll put you on the waiting list.' This was no good
to me, I wanted one NOW. A friend with contacts in the US was trying
to get us one each. Eventually HIS arrived - mysteriously carrying a
Customs declaration saying 'Trade sample - No commercial value.' No
sign of mine. There was a glowing write up in the June 1979 edition of
P.E. Now I wanted one even more. But what's this? A new version of the
board. The Compukit UK 101, the improved British version in kit form
and priced lower. £219 plus VAT but including RF modulator and power
supply. 48 characters by 16 lines. Marvellous! I rushed to get down a
deposit. And then the wait....and wait...and wait. Every computer buff
in the country wanted one. When the magic day came I was taken
unawares. October 1979. Arrived home from work. Message from Post
Office. "Please call at sorting office for parcel." I got there just
as they were about to close.
And I had my first computer!