Saturday, 16 July 2022

Grundy NewBrain (1982)


Launched July 1982

Largely forgotten today and not even very well remembered at the time, the Grundy NewBrain is one of those microcomputers that could have been a contender in the early 1980s personal computer market.

A compact Z80-based machine, the NewBrain featured exceptionally accurate floating point numbers and very high resolution monochrome graphics, which made it attractive to scientists and engineers. It could output to a monitor and TV, and interestingly most models sold had a 16 character display built into the case itself. Internal memory was split between 32KB of ROM and 32KB of RAM, a typical configuration. Additional paged memory could be added in 64KB blocks, theoretically giving a maximum of 2 megabytes. Expansion options included printers, disk drives and pretty much everything you’d expect for a microcomputer of this era. A portable version was also produced, utilising the inbuilt display plus a battery. The compact size of the NewBrain was due in part to a complex multi-layered motherboard that you tinkered with at your peril.

Grundy NewBrain
Grundy NewBrain

The hardware is pretty interesting, but the story of the development and eventual demise of the NewBrain is a slice of 1980s technology drama. Originally, the NewBrain was a project at Sinclair Radionics who were looking for a low-cost competitor to the Apple II. However, Sinclair Radionics were looking at a sub-£100 machine and the NewBrain was never going to be that cheap to build. Instead of going forward with the NewBrain, Clive Sinclair instead developed the ZX80 under his other company, Science of Cambridge.

Sinclair Radionics found itself in financial difficulties. This original Sinclair company had developed small radio sets and pocket calculators, but the money ran out and Radionics was rescued by the National Enterprise Board (NEB) who transferred the NewBrain to another NEB-owned company, Newbury Labs.

About this same time, the BBC was starting work on its computer literacy project, which would involve partnering with a manufacturer to create the BBC Microcomputer. The BBC was steered in the direction of the NEB-owned NewBrain which certainly ticked most of the boxes. It should have been a done deal, but when the BBC came calling the NewBrain wasn’t ready… and rival manufacturers had gotten wind of the BBC Micro and had insisted that they be allowed to tender. In the end, Acorn won the tender and their version of the BBC Microcomputer was born.

Grundy NewBrains with and without integrated displays
Grundy NewBrains with and without integrated displays

So, the NewBrain missed out on being both a Sinclair machine and a BBC Micro. In the end it ended up with a rather obscure company called Grundy Business Systems, who Newbury Labs sold the design to. It wasn’t an immediate market success, but it looked promising. So promising in fact that Grundy built a lot of them… but the hoped-for sales didn’t appear and by 1983 Grundy was in serious trouble. Essentially by 1983 it was all over, most remaining stocks were liquidated and the NewBrain ended up as a casualty of the early 1980s microcomputer crash.

Although it was a limited success in the UK, it was rather more successful in the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and – for some reason – Angola. Had it been ready when the BBC were interested then it might have been the first of a series of machines, but in the end the NewBrain’s potential was never realised.

Today these are highly collectible machines, with working systems often commanding prices of £1000 or more. Alternatively, if you are a former NewBrain owner and want to rekindle old memories, then an emulator is available.

Image credits:
Rama & Musée Bolo via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0 FR
Marcin Wichary via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



Thursday, 23 June 2022

Jaguar XJ220 vs McLaren F1 (1992)

Launched 1992

If you wanted a really fast British supercar in 1992 and you have about half a million pounds in your pocket, you had an intriguing choice between the Jaguar XJ220 and the McLaren F1. Thirty years later, one of these cars is considered to be a success and one a relative failure. But which is which?

Let’s start with the Jag. By 1992, Jaguar was owned by Ford but had spent the previous few years struggling with a range of increasingly elderly cars. However, a successful foray into racing (largely thanks to TWR) had resulted in a supercar project… not just any car, but a street-legal machine capable of hitting 200 miles per hour.

The concept version of the car caused a shockwave. An all-wheel-drive sports car powered by a mighty 6.2L V12 engine mounted in the back, this version of the XJ220 also had scissor doors and the slippery design made it look like no other Jag. The “220” part of the name was the top speed that Jaguar was hoping for and despite the then eye-watering price tag of £470,000 there were 1500 people who put down a deposit.

Jaguar XJ220 - not your grandfather's Jag
Jaguar XJ220 - not your grandfather's Jag

Between concept and product though there were several changes. Perhaps the most significant was the engine. The V12 that Jaguar had proposed was big and heavy and also had problems meeting emissions standards, but Jaguar had ended up with the rights to the engine in the short-lived but legendary MG Metro 6R4 rally car. The 6R4 had a relatively lightweight V6 unit somewhat inspired by the (also) legendary Rover V8. It was a promising engine for Rover, but Group B rallying was banned in 1986 after a series of accidents, and the 6R4 and its engine became essentially redundant. Jaguar took the 6R4 V6 and thoroughly reworked it, adding twin turbos in the process, giving about 542 horsepower. It was arguably a better engine than the V12, but people were expecting a V12 and not a V6. In addition, one other major change were the door – the scissor doors were dropped in favour of more conventional ones, and the car moved to a simpler rear-wheel-drive configuration. Many customers were very unhappy, and these changes plus a recession in the early 1990s led to many cancellations.

The XJ220 was extremely aerodynamic, including the underneath of the car. Body panels and the chassis were made from aluminium. Advanced technologies could be found everywhere from the braking system to the transmission… Jaguar were not short changing customers on kit. Being a Jag, the inside was a lovely place to be. Top speed was around 212 MPH, not quite as much as the 220 in the name, but nonetheless blisteringly fast.

The XJ220 concept had a massive V12 engine, the production car a more compact V6
The XJ220 concept had a massive V12 engine, the production car a more compact V6

The bad points? Well, it was more than two metres wide and lacked power steering and ABS, so it wasn’t much fun as a daily driver. There was also limited luggage space (despite the huge size) making it impractical as a grand tourer as well.

It wasn’t a sales success – Jaguar had never intended it to be a high-volume car, but with just 281 built they fell short of their targets. It did help to raise Jaguar’s profile as a sports car manufacturer, but ultimately the XJ220 was a little too flawed and compromised. The XJ220 was in production for just two years – and Jaguar never made another production car that was anything like it afterwards.

At around the same time, McLaren were developing their first road car around similar themes. A bit more expensive than the XJ220 at £540,000 (in 1992 money), the McLaren F1 wasn’t saddled with the compromises that the Jaguar possessed. The F1 was powered with a normally aspirated (i.e. not turbocharged or supercharged) V12 like the XJ220 concept. McLaren chose the normally aspirated route for reasons of control and predictability – early 1990s turbochargers gave uneven power and suffered from turbo lag, so a normally aspirated engine was much smoother. McLaren shopped around for a suitable V12 eventually settling on a power plant made by BMW.

The McLaren F1 would look fast parked up in Sainsbury's
The McLaren F1 would look fast parked up in Sainsbury's

The body of the F1 made extensive use of carbon fibre, except for the engine bay which has gold foil acting as a heat shield. A combination of other lightweight and strong materials are found throughout the car, including magnesium, Kevlar and titanium. The whole body shape produces downforce rather than having a fat spoiler, but one clever trick was the introduction of two fans in the base of the car with both produced extra downforce and cooling at the same time. The top speed? The McLaren F1 was (and still is) the world’s fasted normally aspirated car with a top speed of 240 MPH.

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The McLaren F1's three seats practically make it an MPV
The McLaren F1's three seats practically make it an MPV

Inside the F1 is highly unusual, featuring three seats – the driver sits in the centre and slightly in front of the two passengers either side in the rear. Entrance to the cabin was through the dihedral (scissor-like) doors, something the XJ220 sorely lacked. Luggage compartments are hidden around the car, although best used with the proprietary matching bags. The F1 also included air conditioning and a number of other aids to make it usable on the roads, transforming the F1 into an almost practical grand tourer as well as a sports car. It wasn’t designed as a track car, but it was pretty good at that two with race variants such as the F1 GTR being made. 

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The McLaren F1 looks purposeful from the back as it disappears over the horizon
The McLaren F1 looks purposeful from the back as it disappears over the horizon

However, despite the advanced engineering, only 106 cars were produced (including prototypes). McLaren did turn a modest profit on the F1 during the six years of production, ending in 1998. McLaren didn’t build another road car until 2011. Nonetheless, the F1 was an engineering success and it didn’t make the compromises that the XJ220 did.

Today a McLaren F1 is worth around £16 million, but an XJ220 is only worth about £450,000 – about the same as it was new in actual pounds, but adjusted for inflation the XJ220 cost around £1 million when new. According to collectors at least, the F1 is a far more desirable car.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Morio via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Jaguar Cars MENA via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Craig James via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Ank Kumar via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Neilhooting via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



Sunday, 12 June 2022

Columbia Data Products MPC 1600

Introduced June 1982

No wait. Don’t go. The MPC 1600 is a hugely important milestone in computing, just one you may not have heard of. Let me explain.

Columbia Data Products MPC 1600
Columbia Data Products MPC 1600

August 1981 saw the launch of the IBM PC into the fast-growing microcomputer marketplace. It wasn’t the most advanced microcomputer on the market, but it did have the magic letters “IBM” on it which made it attractive to corporate buyers.

Unlike other IBM products, the PC was made largely of off-the-shelf components that anyone could buy. IBM had also documented everything in painstaking detail in order to attract third-party developers to create hardware and software for the new platform. Theoretically anyone could build a machine like the IBM PC except for one major component… the BIOS.

The BIOS is an oft-forgotten part of the PC. Lying somewhere between hardware and software in the layer known as “firmware”, the BIOS provides the most basic software functions that a PC relies on. Unlike most of the rest of the IBM PC, the BIOS was strictly proprietary. However, developers needed to understand how that BIOS worked, so IBM provided full specification of the functionality. Not enough to clone the BIOS… or so they thought.

So when Columbia Data Products (or CDP) wanted to make a machine just like the IBM PC but better value, the BIOS was an obstacle. However, IBM had published the full BIOS specifications (but not the code) to help developers, CDP took the specifications and created a clean room design of the BIOS which replicated the functionality but used none of the code.

1982 ad for the MPC 1600
1982 ad for the MPC 1600 with funky Lear Siegler terminals


When launched in 1982, the Columbia Data Products MPC 1600 was about half the price of the IBM, but had more memory, more built-in features and more expansion. It was a quality machine in both terms of hardware and the 100% compatilibity with the genuine IBM PC, usually measured in those days by being able to run Microsoft Flight Simulator. For people who wanted an IBM PC but didn’t want to pay IBM prices, it was an attractive deal.

CDP’s sales grew quickly and expanded their range, but the problem was that they weren’t the only players in the market. Other firms joined the fray, usually competing on price and squeezing the very thin margins the clone makers had even further. Initial success gave way to red ink, and by 1985 CDP was bankrupt. However, that wasn’t the end for CDP and subsequent rescue led to a change of emphasis, and Columbia Data Products still exists today making data backup products.

Today, the chances are that the computer you use is a PC clone. It was always likely that IBM would create a beast that it couldn’t control and that clones would take over, so even if Columbia Data hadn’t been the first it would likely be someone else. But the fact remains that they were the first…

Image credits:
Ben Franske via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
PC Magazine, November 1982


Sunday, 22 May 2022

Sun-1 (1982)

Available May 1982

If you wanted to put a computer on your desk in 1982, there were a wide variety of choices. Businesses might go a system like the IBM PC or Victor 9000, home users might go for something like a VIC 20 or TI-99/4A. If you had more exotic requirements there were high-end devices such as the GRiD Compass or Xerox Star. The Sun-1 workstation – first shipping in May 1982 – fell firmly into the last category, putting minicomputer power in the hands of the individual.

Sun-1 Workstation
Sun-1 Workstation


The Sun-1 was the first commercial product of Sun Microsystems, which had grown out of a workstation project started at Stanford University – the name “SUN” was derived from “Stanford University Network”. The original series of Sun workstations were built for on-campus use only, but the Sun-1 took that experience and turned it into a commercial product.

Designed to be powerful enough to run UNIX or other multitasking OSes, the CPU was the surprisingly modest Motorola 68000 coupled with 256KB of RAM out of the box, which was upgradeable to 2MB. Custom Sun silicon enabled the CPU to reliably support multitasking, the 1024 x 800 pixel graphics also had hardware acceleration. The standard display was a 17” CRT although other options were available. Although it was designed as a single-user computer, you could hook up to two text terminals to the back to use it as a small-scale minicomputer.

Expansion options were comprehensive including Ethernet, mass storage and other peripherals. In a rackmount version the Sun-1 made a capable server, but its real home was sitting on a desk or in a lab where all the power could be used by just one person. It wasn’t cheap of course, starting at $8900 at 1982 prices (around $25,000 today) so it was limited to those organisations that had the budget and the need for that much computing power.


Sun-1 Workstation
Another Sun-1 Workstation

As a product it was still a little rough around the edges, but a year and a half later the Sun-2 came out with both improved internal hardware and a more professional external design. The Sun-2 and the Sun-3 (launched in 1985) established Sun Microsystems as the player to beat in the workstation market.

Sun itself thrived until 2001 when it was badly hit by the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and the following years were dominated by red ink in the balance books, caused in part by more powerful Intel-based machines running Windows and Linux which could outperform and undercut Sun's products at the same time. In 2009 Sun were bought out by Oracle, and although Oracle still sells servers based on Sun architecture you probably wouldn't know it. Oracle - after all - has a reputation of where good products go to die.

Image credits:
Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Carlo Nardone via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Orbitel TPU 901 (1992)

Launched May 1992

Early mobile phones were terrible things. Not only were they big and clunky, but the old analogue networks that they ran on had terrible call quality, poor reliability and were very insecure. These early technologies such as AMPS, TACS and NMT became retrospectively known as “1G” – these days often forgotten and unloved.

By 1992 these 1G networks had been around for a decade or so and their weaknesses were becoming obvious. The market was ripe for something better, and in 1992 the world’s first 2G GSM networks came online. These digital networks had better call quality, security and required a smaller slice of the radio spectrum, and the first certified GSM phone to be available was the Orbitel TPU 901.

Orbitel TPU 901

A bulky device even by the standards of the time, the 901 had a handset connected to the base station via a curly cord and it weighed a whopping 2.1 kilos. It wasn’t a big seller – smaller and cheaper GSM phones were not far off – but the Orbitel TPU 901 does have the distinction of receiving the world’s first SMS text message with the words “Merry Christmas” sent in December the same year.

Orbitel was a British-based joint venture between Racal (who owned Vodafone) and Plessey which eventually ended up in the hands of Ericsson and effectively vanished in the noughties. Today the TPU 901 (and the car-mounted TPU 900) should still work on 900MHz GSM networks, if you ever managed to get your hands on one.

Orbitel TPU 901
Orbitel TPU 901

Of course, the 901 was the first of many GSM phones on the market, more memorably the Motorola International 3200 launched later in 1992 with a memorable brick-like design that summed up the era perfectly. About a million others followed, but the Orbitel TPU 901 – largely forgotten today – was the very first.

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
[1] [2]

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Raspberry Pi (2012)

Available April 2012

Single board computers were common in the early days of microcomputers, with the KIM-1 offering a relatively low-cost way of playing with the then-new 6502 CPU and later devices such as the Acorn System 1 made it cheaper still. But single board computers appealed most to hobbyists, and as technology developed so did microcomputers, eventually evolving into complete systems that were easier for novices to use.

Original Raspberry Pi Model B
Original Raspberry Pi Model B

As the decades rolled on, the amount of computing power that could be squeezed into a board computer grew. First came Arduino, a series of open source board computers that could be used for microcontrollers. A few years later, TI came up with the BeagleBoard which was a general purpose computer on a single board. But perhaps the best know modern single board computer is the Raspberry Pi, shipping to customers in April 2012.

Unlike some other designs, the Pi was a complete system on a compact board. With built-in USB, video and networking ports all that was required was a memory card with an operating system and a monitor, keyboard, mouse and power supply. These are all pretty common peripherals, and in most cases Pi users could just re-purpose old equipment used elsewhere. The Pi didn’t come with a case so a cottage industry started up making them, all of this echoing the rather do-it-yourself approach of the original Apple I.

The first Raspberry Pi models were announced in February 2012, coming to market in April the same year. Like the BBC Micro, there were two launch models of the Pi – A and B. B was the most popular, based around a Broadcom chipset that included an ARM CPU, RAM and all of the other silicon needed on a single chip. But perhaps the biggest breakthrough was the price – this complete computer system cost just $25 or the local equivalent for the simplest model.

Coincidentally, the ARM CPU in the Pi was originally designed by Acorn, whose experience with the 6502 (starting with the Acorn System 1 board computer) inspired them to create an inexpensive, simple but very fast processor based on similar principles.

The target market was initially education – instead of expensive laptops, students could simply plug their own Pi into a PSU, monitor, network socket, mouse and keyboard and do whatever they wanted with it. The easily swappable memory card meant that different configurations could be experimented with easily. But the appeal turned out to be far greater, everyone from hobbyists to engineers wanted to play with one and the Pi became a significant success. Raspberry Pi devices can be seen in almost any application from controllers to servers, often performing tasks as well as machines costing hundreds of times as much.

A decade on, the Raspberry Pi is still going strong. Later models offered more ports, a faster processor and more memory and even cheaper models such as the Pi Zero and Pi Pico slotted into the range below the fully-featured Pi. A wide range of peripherals are available for almost any application, and OS support has grown from Linux-only to include Windows 10 IoT and even a version of RISC OS (originally designed for the very first ARM-based computer, the Archimedes).

Raspberry Pi emulating a DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11
Raspberry Pi emulating a DEC PDP-8 and PDP-11

Millions of devices and a decade later, the Pi has proved to be an antidote to the anodyne world of modern personal computing. The Pi helped to re-ignite some of the early hacker ethic of early micros and taught a new generation that what they could do with a computer was only limited by their imagination. Not too shabby for just $25.

Image credits:
osde8info via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0
Wolfgang Stief via Flickr – CC0


Saturday, 23 April 2022

GRiD Compass (1982)

Released April 1982

Even though practical microcomputers had only been around for a few years by 1982, there was a growing market for portable devices such as the Kaypro II which offered all the computing power you probably needed in a luggable package.

Back then people accepted that a portable computer would weigh something like 13 kg and come in a huge case. Practically speaking you’d typically carry it between a desk and car. Unlike modern “laptop” computers, most portables of the early 1980s would possibly break your knees if you tried to use them on the sofa.

GRiD Compass
GRiD Compass

The first practical laptop computer is widely considered to be the GRiD Compass. A clamshell on the front of the device held a 320 x 240 pixel electroluminescent display and a keyboard in a format instantly recognisable today. Although the display was relatively small, it was sharp and clear compared to early LCD panels and the limited resolution was actually pretty competitive with most computers of the time.

Inside was an Intel 8086 CPU with an 8087 maths coprocessor, but this was no DOS-compatible computer. Instead the Compass ran a proprietary OS called GRID-OS which was menu-driven and quite friendly. One novelty was storage – the Compass used magnetic bubble memory giving 340Kb of non-volatile storage. Most production systems also included a modem, and an IEEE interface bus was standard. The lightweight but strong magnesium alloy case contributed to the relatively light weight of around 5 kg.

This was a highly advanced machine, and it came with a substantial price tag starting at $8500 in 1982 money which is around $25,000 today. OK, it is possible to spend more than that on a computer today (a high-end Mac Pro can cost $60,000 or more) but that was nearly six times the price of the Kaypro and to be honest it couldn’t do as much for a typical end user.

Where it did find a niche was in government sales. The tough but lightweight design lent itself well to military applications, and the Compass was also certified for use on board the Space Shuttle. Large corporations were drawn to it as a practical and highly portable device, but few found their way to private users due to the high price.

GRiD Compass running a spreadsheet
GRiD Compass running a spreadsheet

This was the first in line of several GRiD systems, and on top of healthy sales they also owned a patent for several of the elements of the clamshell design, meaning that other laptop manufacturers had to pay GRiD a fee for each system built. GRiD was taken over by Tandy in 1988 followed by a management buyout in 1993 which moved the company from California to the UK. The company – now called GRiD Defence Systems – still makes ruggedized laptops and other hardware.

The Compass set the pattern for all modern laptop designs, years before they became commonplace. Today first-generation GRiD Compass systems are very rare and you can expect to pay between £5000 to £10000 for a working system.

Image credits:
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Niall Kennedy via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0