The Home Computer

Thomas John Watson, Sr. was president of International Business Machines (IBM) who was responsible for the company’s growth into an international force from 1914 to 1956.

For a man who achieved all this it is perhaps surprising that he made one of the least accurate predictions ever when he said sometime in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” .  Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977 must have been reminded of this when he said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Well they were both wrong and in 1981 Sir Clive Sinclair launched his home computer and almost thirty years later almost every house has one.  The Sinclair was small, black with only 1K of memory, and it would have needed more than fifty-thousand of them to run Word or Excel, but the Sinclair changed everything.  It didn’t do colour, it didn’t do sound, it couldn’t remember anything and it didn’t even have an off switch. But it brought computers into the home, over a million of them, and created a generation of software developers.

Up until this moment I, like most people, hadn’t given a lot of thought to owning my own computer.  There was a mainframe machine at work which clanked and whirred away in a mysterious sort of way in an air-conditioned room at the back of the building but I didn’t get to use it and I didn’t even have a terminal on my desk just a telephone, a stapler, a hole punch, a sellotape dispenser and a bottle of Tipp-Ex!

Cory Environmental Contract Manager

Anyway, when this thing arrived at W H Smiths for £69.95 (or £49.95 if you built it yourself) I was quickly convinced that it was something I really needed.  I visited the store a couple of times and just touched the box and poked a finger at the demonstration machine but this was just a bit of tyre kicking of course because I had no idea why I needed it or what I was going to do with it.  On the third visit I made up my mind and bought one.

It came in a pack with an instruction manual and some software, some games including space invaders and chess and some geeky stuff that I never used like ‘make a chip’.  It had to be connected to a cassette recorder and the software downloaded whilst making a reassuring screeching noise to confirm that there was actually some data transfer taking place.  Eventually the tape would clunk to a stop and if you were lucky the software began to work.

After a while magazines started to print code for new games and applications and I would spend hours typing them in via the flat plastic keyboard but just one mistake – which might have been a typing error in the magazine – and it didn’t work.

Typing this code into the machine made me realise that there wasn’t much to this programming malarkey at all and I quickly learned that you didn’t need to be a computer scientist with a brain as big as Mount Everest to be able to do some BASIC programming for yourself.

I am absolutely certain that I will never ever be able to follow a knitting pattern or flat pack furniture assembly instructions but I discovered that when it came to BASIC programming I was a bit of a natural and I became consumed by the thing.

This product was so successful that just over a year later  a new, bigger and better looking model was launched called the Sinclair Spectrum.  This had a massive 4K of RAM so now programming possibilities were almost infinite.

I would spend hours hooked up to a portable TV set creating and designing my own programmes and doing everything that I could to squeeze every last bit out of the memory.

There were two programmes that I was most proud of both of which I submitted to a magazine and had them printed.  The first was a game of Connect4 played by two players or against the computer itself; I was proud of that and my friends and family were really impressed.  My favourite however was a database programme for recording and storing cricket averages.  Even though I say so myself this was a neat little programme that I used for a couple of years to keep the office team records.

Rugby Rural District Council Cricket Team

We all owe so much to Sir Clive Sinclair because the introduction of his home computer was one of those moments in history when social change and human development goes through a momentary period of rapid acceleration and without the Sinclair ZX81 and the Spectrum I would not be sitting in front of my Packard Bell writing my blog!

What are your memories of your first home computer?

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28 responses to “The Home Computer

  1. Oh noes. You have gone down the road of asking a question at the end of your post. So, I shan’t make my intended comment or you will think I am answering your question!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is an invitation!

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      • My first comment was, what on earth did you do in that office with such an immaculate desk? Can’t have been much.

        The second was in fact about our first computer, an Amstrad. I was too mean to pay for a hard drive, didn’t think we needed it, so we had to fire it up with a floppy. Sold it for fifty quid two house moves later to one of the removal men who thought it would be good for his kids to play games on. Do hope we gave him the start-up disc.

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      • I used to keep that office really clean and tidy. It was an oasis in the middle of a waste management depot. I think I may have had a calculator but I probably kept that in the drawer.
        Sounds like you got a good price for that Amstrad!

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      • Yes, but did you actually do anything?
        Didn’t make a profit, but beat throwing it out.

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      • I had to work quite hard as it happens. Long hours, minimum 10 hour day and weekends. The private sector company bid for the public sector work with a ludicrously cheap price which meant continuous pressure. The council wanted the work doing properly and head office wanted us to skimp and cheat. It was there that I learnt to juggle hot coals!

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      • Or possibly, as I have learned Andrew, reposition dead cats for a profit. 🙂 –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Go on, rough seas, we need to know what you wanted to say.

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  3. Oh, goodness! The Sinclair…remember that…. And DOS and floppy disks

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  4. My family got their first ‘puter on 7-7-1977. It was an Apple II E. I remember doing my homework on it and writing programs in DOS. ha ha!
    10 “You’re a dork!”
    20 go to 10
    Run
    You’re a dork
    You’re a dork
    You’re a dork
    You’re a dork

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  5. With today’s technology I truly feel ancient when I think of my first computer experience – in early 1970’s at Uni I studied Fortran programing language etc so that I could whip up this smart Thesis with oodles and oodles of data punched into the computer from research in psycholinguistics…mind you the actual computer took up the whole big room 🙂 My first home computer from memory was a Commodore PET in late seventies

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    • I remember the Commodore PET and the BBC computer. Both short on memory I think?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, not much use but hey – better than nothing – it started a new growth in me as I grew into ever changing computer technology like most of my generation +/- some years – I reckon we were lucky as basics allowed us to understand improvements all until a few years ago when progress became so fast that I for one gave up keeping up with changes as long as I have what I need 😀

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  6. I never got to use a computer until November 1989 and that was in a new job I got. I had to share the computer with my Boss who would only let me use it when he was at lunch. It had a large back, took ages to come on, was very heavy and sat on a disk drive. We printed big spreadsheets from it which I then had to update by hand and, at lunchtimes I had to update all the amendments on the computer. I only had an hour to do it, and he was very strict. When he was suddenly marched off the company premises one day, I was told that he had been using the computer to put recipes on which his wife had given him. He had also spent rather a lot of time looking at things he should not have been looking at. I knew then why he sometimes closed and locked his office door during work hours.

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    • That is funny Hugh. I once worked with a woman who was restoring an old Welsh Dresser and using the Company computer she did a search for ‘knobs and knockers’. as a result she had quite a lot of explaining to do to the IT police!

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      • I bet she did! I also once told an aunt of mine to look up the recipe for Spotted Dick on the new computer she’d bought herself. She’d been having computer lessons and was told she was part of the new ‘silver surfer’ brigade. She got quite a shock with the results. My Mother was not best pleased with me.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Had to be the mid-80s, Andrew. And I confess I never touched programming. I bought my first office computer in 1983/84. A Compaq. But speaking of programming, my secretary in 1984 had a home computer with one of the games you would play and play until finally you mastered whatever level you were on to move to the next one. One night, after hours of play she was almost to the point of beating the game when she made a mistake. She was so mad she typed in F**K You. The computer came back with “My place or yours.” 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I notice you didn’t have your feet up on the desk, and that somehow makes me sad. My first computer-type memory is not about computers, but about the printers attached to them. All that noise and those pull-apart sheets of paper. 🙂 (and how slow it all was!)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s been so long, it’s hard to remember the sequence, but I think I first bought a used IBM in 1974 while at school. I was learning to run Fortran to run a precursor drafting program on the school’s monster computer which took up an entire room. It took umpteen lines of programming language to draw a simple line. From there I switched schools and one of the instructors had written software for a Mac that was much like the initial version of AutoCad. I then went to work using a gov’t written computer drafting program which was ridiculously tedious. We considered ourselves lucky when we switched to a Windows desktop that came with AutoCad software. Initially, I hated giving up DOS for Windows. It felt like a step in the wrong direction. These days I’m on an iMac and wouldn’t go back to Windows for love or money. 😉 But with a mind growing older and slower I simply can’t keep up with all the new tricks and changes. It still beats passively watching TV though. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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