Sunday, 28 August 2022

Dragon 32 (1982)

Introduced August 1982

By 1982 the home computer market in the UK was getting quite sophisticated with the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 all competing for attention. To compete with these three extremely capable systems you were going to need something very good indeed. The Dragon 32 was not that computer. Not by a long chalk. Yet somehow it managed to carve out a fairly respectable slice of the market for a couple of years, and it all started so promisingly.

Dragon 32

British toy firm Mettoy – manufacturer of Corgi Toys – had spotted that children were becoming increasingly interested in computers and decided to enter the market, creating a factory in Wales to build the Dragon. Mettoy knew a lot about marketing and distribution, and in particular it understood export markets. However, Mettoy got into technical difficulties and the Dragon Data business ended up under the control of the industrial giant GEC.

The Dragon 32 itself was based on a Motorola reference design and used their 6809E processor, rather than the more common Zilog Z80 or MOS 6502s that rivals used. The dragon wasn’t the only machine built to the same basic design – the TRS-80 Color Computer (CoCo) launched in the US two years earlier was very similar and was somewhat compatible when it came to software.

Making a sort-of-clone of a two-year old computer in 1982 – when technology was moving at a breath-taking rate – may not have been a great start, but the 6809E was a capable CPU, the machine was very well built and you could connect up joysticks, a printer and a decent monitor. RAM was 32KB, a so-so amount for the time (a later 64KB version, the Dragon 64 was launched not long after) and it had simple sound capabilities. The inbuilt Microsoft BASIC was pretty good to program, which was one of the main things people liked to do in those days. Software could be ported across from the CoCo with a few modifications.

Dragon 64 in use
Dragon 64 in use

On the more negative side – the graphics were terrible, especially when it came to the colour palettes. The Dragon was also incapable of displaying lowercase characters without modification, which limited its appeal as an educational or business computer, and you couldn’t easily mix text and graphics at the same time. Although the Dragon 32 was popular enough to have many best-selling games titles ported to it, the poor graphics meant that they didn’t look as good as games played on rival machines.

Overall it wasn’t a bad system, but it was up against more capable competition. It might have been a contender but by 1983 the home computer market was imploding, with an oversupply of systems, brutal price wars and a fragmented array of available systems that frankly needed shaking out. Dragon Data was one of the victims, going bust in 1984, but the assets being bought up by a Spanish company named Eurohard which sold the product line until 1987, when it too went bust.

Despite market failures, the Dragon 32 retains a following in the hobbyist market with many additional modifications including improved operating systems and peripherals, including modern add-ons such as memory card readers in lieu of tape or disk drives. Working systems can command prices in of a few hundred pounds, depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:
Liftarn / Pixel8 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Rain Rabbit via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0



Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Commodore 64 (1982)

Released August 1982

This – ladies and gentlemen – is the big one as far as 8-bit computers go. The biggest-selling single model of computer of all time, and a system that had success worldwide and is still remembered fondly today. I give you… the Commodore 64.


Commodore 64 original "breadbin" case
Commodore 64 original "breadbin" case



At first glance, the C64 is difficult to tell apart from the previous year’s VIC-20 as it shipped in a near-identical case at first. Inside though this was a much more powerful machine, running on a MOS Technology 6510 CPU, essentially a custom version of the popular 6502. The “64” in the Commodore 64 name comes from the amount of available RAM. The C64 used clever paging techniques where the CPU can page between ROM and RAM and rearrange most of the computer’s internal memory map to maximise available memory. This sophisticated scheme gave programmers much more RAM to play with than the competition who mostly used a flat memory configuration where ROM and RAM had to share the same space.

Graphics were a huge improvement over the VIC-20, with 320 x 200 pixels in 16 colours plus sprites, controlled by the MOS VIC-II graphics processor. Another MOS chip, the 6581 sound generator, gave multichannel sound. There was a built-in joystick port. By default the C64 shipped with a tape drive, or you could add on an incredibly slow floppy disk or the IEEE 488 serial bus which also supported printing. The hardware was subject to constant revision which sometimes produced compatibility problems.

Software support was excellent, with around 10,000 titles produced during the lifetime of the machine. Initially some of this shipped on a ROM cartridge, but this had a limit of just 16Kb so eventually tape became more common for complex games. In terms of games, few platforms even game close to the C64.

Excellent software and hardware made it an attractive proposition, but Commodore were keen to make this as affordable as possible. The initial launch price of $595 continually dropped, reaching $300 by 1983 (with cheaper deals available if you shopped around), easily undercutting the Atari 400/800, Apple II and crucially the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A.

There was a lot of bad blood between Commodore and Texas Instruments... TI had nearly bankrupted Commodore in the 1970s during the pocket calculator wars. Commodore boss Jack Tramiel wanted revenge, firstly the low-end VIC-20 piled on the pressures and the price-cutting on the Commodore 64 forced Texas to sell their system at a huge loss in order to compete. Not only did this force Texas to crash out of the home computer market, but it also inadvertently started a huge shake-out in the home computer market too.

If you were a teenager in the UK at the time, you would probably have had endless playground arguments comparing the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Microcomputer. The argument could never be won because – in retrospect – all three platforms were really good and had their own strengths and weaknesses… but try telling kids that.

Sales were strong throughout the 80s, but competition grew tougher. Commodore attempted to diversify the C64-based offerings, notably with the luggable Commodore SX-64 (the first colour portable computer), the wedgy Commodore 64C and Commodore 128 plus an unsuccessful attempt at a games console with the Commodore 64GS.

Commodore 64C in the "wedge" case
Commodore 64C in the "wedge" case

At least 12 million Commodore 64 units were shipped up until 1994, only stopping when Commodore folded that same year. Over 12 years of production, the C64 was a massively influential machine – even today. Modern clones such as The C64 carry the torch, or used systems can typically be had for a few hundred pounds. Alternatively there are software emulators available. There's no doubt that even 40 years after launch, the C64 still has its fans.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Bill Bertram via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.5


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
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