Saturday, 6 March 2021

Sinclair ZX81 (1981)

Launched March 1981

By early 1981 the microcomputer revolution was well underway, with plenty of options available for people wanting to dip their toe into this new high-tech world. The problem with most of these options was that they were expensive.

In the US, the Commodore VIC-20 was leading the charge on behalf of low-cost computing, but in the UK there had been an even cheaper and more basic computer launched in 1980 in the shape of the Sinclair ZX80 which had been a modest success. But it was Sinclair’s next computer – in the shape of the Sinclair ZX81 – that became the ground-breaking machine that found its way into more than a million homes.

Sinclair ZX81
Sinclair ZX81

On paper, the ZX81 was just a minor upgrade to the ZX80. But crucially, Sinclair had redesigned the electronics completely – where the ZX80 had 21 mostly off-the-shelf chips, the ZX81 had just 4. The difference was a custom-built ULA designed and built by computing pioneers Ferranti. This made the whole design simpler, and critically cheaper. A fully-assembled version cost just under £70, compared to £100 for the ZX80. If you were a real cheapskate you could buy a kit for just £49.95 and assemble it yourself.

The ZX81 was a simple but clever system. Smaller than a sheet of paper, the ZX81 boasted a reasonably powerful Z80 CPU clocked at 3.25MHz but only had a tiny 1Kb of RAM as standard. A truly terrible membrane keyboard also came with all the ZX81 BASIC functions pre-printed onto the keys, making it easier to learn how to program the thing. All you needed was a domestic TV and a cassette player so you could save and load programs, and you’d be away. In a strictly limited sense.

Text was a 32 column by 24 line affair, or a limited 64 x 48 pixel graphics display. There was no colour or sound, and anything displayed on the screen ate into the tiny amount of RAM. Also, the limited hardware meant that the ZX81 had to use a fair chunk of processor cycles to update the image which slowed it down..  you could speed things up by using FAST mode which prioritised speed over the display, which would white out when the computer was thinking.

On the back of the ZX81 was a simple edge connector, which most owners used to attach a notoriously wobbly 16Kb RAM pack, but Sinclair also sold a tiny printer that output onto silver paper. But the edge connector could be used for more, and a small cottage industry sprang up making everything from replacement keyboards, sound generators and even disk interfaces. A wide range of decent quality software appeared on tape, and a number of magazines produced printed BASIC programs that the user could laboriously key in and debug.

It was a good-looking system, designed by Rick Dickinson who had a long association with Sinclair. The comprehensive manual also featured gorgeous cover art by sci-fi artist John Harris. The fabulous design didn’t always make up for variable build quality, but certainly the unboxing experience was something a bit special.

Typical ZX81 configuration with cassette recorder, monochrome TV and manual
Typical ZX81 configuration with cassette recorder, monochrome TV and manual

Despite its flaws, the ZX81 was a hugely popular system – especially in the UK. However, an attempt to break through into the US market in partnership with Timex (who assembled the ZX81) met with limited success. A number of other clones – some licenced, some illegal – followed in worldwide markets. Enthusiasts continue to develop hardware and software for the ZX81 even today.

The profits from the ZX81 were substantial, putting Sinclair in an excellent position to develop their next machine, the ZX Spectrum. More importantly, the ZX81 introduced millions of people to computers and programming and helped to make those fields popular in the markets the ZX81 succeeded. Today the ZX81 is quite collectable with a thriving trade in software and add-ons, prices for ones in excellent condition can exceed £100 but there are bargains if you hunt around. 

Image credits:
Science Museum Group
- CC BY 4.0
Mike Cattell via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Quantel Paintbox (1981)

Introduced 1981

If you watched TV during the 1980s and 1990s then you’ll probably be familiar with the work of the Quantel Paintbox, even if you don’t know it. A high-end computer system aimed at providing professional graphics for television studios, the Paintbox propelled graphics from being either painstaking or amateurish to the easy-to-use and slick presentations we see today.

Quantel was a British electronics company founded in the 1970s, early expertise in both digital and video technologies led to the creation of the Paintbox in 1981. Put simply, the original Paintbox was a true-colour digital graphics system that was years ahead of its rivals. The primary interface was a massive touch-sensitive digital tablet, but the clever end was a rack-mountable computer based on the Motorola 68000 processor but with a mass of custom-designed computer hardware to handle everything, including a massive 14" hard disk for storage. All of this was designed and built in Newbury, England.

Quantel Paintbox
Quantel Paintbox

Designed from the point of view of the digital artist, the Paintbox was both easy to use and very powerful. But all of this came at a cost - £120,000 in 1980, equivalent to about half a million pounds today. But for most established TV production companies of the time, price was not a barrier.

It wasn’t just TV, artists such as David Hockney used the Paintbox and it played a role in Dire Strait’s famous video for “Money for Nothing”, and it found its way onto eighties album covers. But on TV it was everywhere – title sequences, weather forcecasts, maps, captions… it defined the look of late 1980s television.

Buoyed by success, Quantel’s range grew to include digital libraries, animation systems and a host of other related technologies. All of this expertise made Quantel the go-to company for digital production, and despite cheaper systems such as the Video Toaster nipping at their heels it seemed that Quantel had the market sewn up. But by the early 2000s competition was becoming fiercer, and it was becoming possible to do digital editing on off-the-shelf computer systems. Quantel’s market share slipped, and they merged with rivals Snell & Wilcox, were then acquired by Belden and finally spun out into the Grass Valley company – still serving the same market, and still with an office in Newbury. The Grass Valley Rio system is the modern descendant of those 80s and 90s Quantel systems.

Image credit:
Martin Deutsch via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Monday, 15 February 2021

Defender (1981)

Introduced February 1981

The Golden Age of Arcade Machines really started in 1978 with Space Invaders, an addictive game built on simple hardware. But technology was pushing ahead at a pace, and the same sort of hardware that was finding itself into microcomputers of the era was also finding its way into the arcades.

Defender is a case in point – the first arcade game from pinball masters Williams, the Defender machine used the relatively new Motorola 6809 CPU and a 16 colour monitor with a 320 x 256 pixel resolution, with a second Motorola CPU (this time a more basic 6800) handling the sound. Of course, powerful hardware is one thing, but good gameplay is even more important.


Thematically, Defender was a sort of cross between Space Invaders and Asteroids. The player controls a small spaceship which is tasked with protecting humans on a barren planetoid from hostile aliens. The ship can move left and right, causing the screen to scroll with it, or up and down to the top of the screen. The play area wraps around from left to right, and is displayed on a mini-map at the top of the screen. Aliens will either try to kidnap and mutate the humans, or will attack the player’s ship directly. Compared to other shoot-‘em-up space games, Defender allows the player a large degree of mobility and they can develop their own strategies.

However, the game was notoriously difficult to play. The controls consisted of an up/down joystick, a thrust button, reverse button, fire button, smart bomb button and away from all the others was the emergency hyperspace. Pressing “thrust” would make the ship accelerate in the direction it was pointing (left or right), keeping the button pressed down make it go faster and faster until usually you smacked into an alien invade. Slowing down required the use of the reverse button and then reverse thrust. While trying to do this, invariably you would need to shoot at stuff and keep an eye on the minimap. Newbies would die very quickly – and this being an arcade game, they’d need to put in more money to try again.


Ergonomics? What's that? Defender's notoriously difficult control panel

The Defender game itself had been subject to a prolonged period of development difficulties (although the Motorola EXORciser used to develop it is a whole rabbit-hole by itself), and had taken up a considerable amount of time and money at Williams. When it finally hit the arcades in 1981 it was unpopular at first, most likely due to the difficult gameplay. But as people got used to it, Defender became more popular.. and eventually turned into a massive hit. Williams shipped nearly 60,000 arcade machines which brought in more than $1 billion of revenue.

The humble 8-bit 6809 CPU was pushed right to the end of its performance with the game – indeed, it could often suffer from lag when there was too much going on. But it made a good candidate for conversion to the growing market of micros and consoles which were also expanding in capabilities at the time, with a variety of official and unofficial ports available for almost every system that could keep up with the demands of the game.

Defender demonstrated that video games could be more complex than the simple format inspired by Space Invaders, although not many games would succeed if they were as unforgiving to newbies. But other side-scrolling games followed, including Scramble which hit the arcades later the same year. Today Defender machines are quite collectable today assuming you have the space and.. errr.. about £7000 or so.

Image credits:
Matt Grommes – CC BY-SA 2.0
Rob DiCaterino via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

LEO I and Ferranti Mark 1 (1951)

Introduced February 1951

The years immediately after the end of the Second World War saw huge advances in the use of electronics and the development of early computers. By 1951, these machines were becoming practical – albeit in strictly limited scenarios – and February 1951 saw both the world’s first public demonstration of the LEO I and the delivery of the first Ferranti Mark 1 computers.

Both computer systems were British designed and built, they used vacuum tubes and masses of discrete components such as diodes and resistors, housed in huge boxes weighing several tons that sucked in electricity at a phenomenal rate. Primitive by today’s standards, the Ferranti Mark 1 and LEO I was early examples of successful commercial computers.

The computers had different markets, the Ferranti was aimed at scientists and engineers but the LEO was the world’s first dedicated business computer.

LEO Computer name plate

“LEO” stood for “Lyons Electronic Office”, and it was a computer originally designed for the J Lyons company in the UK. Lyons at that time was a massive business of food manufacturing, tea shops and other hospitality businesses spread throughout the country. Almost every town had a Lyons Tea Shop, making them the post-war equivalent of Costa Coffee or Starbuck today – and they had a huge number of customers and staff to support them, requiring a steady and uninterrupted supply of food to keep everything going.

It was a massive logistical enterprise, and Lyons managed it very successfully. Indeed, Lyons successful management of logistics led to the British government giving them the contract to run a large munitions factory called ROF Elstow during World War II. Logistics was the key to the Lyons business, and this led to their interest in the developing world of computers.

The LEO I was designed to help with that. Inspired largely by the EDSAC computer developed at the University of Cambridge, the LEO I started with the mundane task of bakery valuations before moving on to inventory management and payroll. Lyons even started doing payroll for other companies, and there was demand for LEO I systems from other large companies in the UK.

LEO I Mercury Delay Line Storage Unit
LEO I Mercury Delay Line Storage Unit

A few years later, the successful computer division was spun out as LEO Computers leading to the LEO II and LEO III which used more modern technology. In the 1960s, LEO Computers were merged into English Electric, then International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and eventually found their way into ICL which itself was taken over by Fujitsu in 2002. The J Lyons company also faded away, by the 1960s the tea shops were losing money and despite a merger with Allied Breweries in the late 1970s, the profitable parts of the company were sold off but the Lyons name lives on under different owners.

The Ferranti Mark 1 had a different lineage – essentially a commercialised version of the Manchester Mark 1 developed at the University of Manchester. Ferranti themselves were a more traditional electrical engineering and electronics company, working in diverse markets such as defence, power systems and home appliances. Their experience in electronics in World War II made them an obvious choice to collaborate with the Manchester project.

Although both computers used vacuum tubes, they had very different forms of memory – the LEO used acoustic mercury delay lines and the Ferranti used a CRT called a Williams Tube. These technologies were only marginally viable even in 1951 and neither technology made it to the end of the decade. Data storage for both systems included the rather more long-lasting solutions of paper tape and punched cards.

Several generations of improved computers came after the Mark 1, but Ferranti wasn’t competitive in the business computer market so eventual sold that off to ICT (who became ICL), concentrating instead on industrial and military applications. Development of these computers continued into the 1980s, alongside Ferranti’s successful semiconductor business.

Ferranti Mark 1 Logic Door

But where J Lyons faded away, Ferranti’s end was more sudden and dramatic. A takeover of a US firm called International Signal and Control (ISC) in 1987 was a disaster – although ISC looked like a good fit, it turned out that the books that Ferranti had inspected were false and instead of ISC being a profitable and above-board defence contractor, its real business was in illegal arms sales which were often made at the behest of the US government. These illegal contracts stopped as soon as ISC because British-owned leading to a massive black hole in Ferranti’s accounts. By 1993 it was all over, Ferranti collapsed and the viable business units were bought out by competitors.

It’s a familiar story of course, early innovators fall by the wayside and then disappear. Not every company can become an IBM or Apple, but in the case of Lyons and Ferranti rather more was lost along the way. 

Image credits:
Ferranti Mark 1 Logic Door - Science Museum Group – CC BY 4.0
LEO Computer Name Plate - Science Museum Group – CC BY 4.0
LEO I Mercury Delay Line - Rhys Jones via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Ford Crown Victoria (1991) and DMC DeLorean (1981)

Two unlikely stars of the silver (and small) screen, the Ford Crown Victoria and DMC DeLorean were launched a decade apart… and although they are very different cars, they are familiar to audiences the world over.

Let’s start with the most unlikely one – the Ford Crown Victoria. The first model of this car rolled off the production line in Canada in January 1991. A big and fairly bland-looking thing (the Americans call it a “full-sized sedan”) it had rear wheel drive and a 4.6 litre V8 engine – although this only ever produced a maximum of 250 horsepower on production cars.

Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

But it was as a police car that the Crown Victoria found its fame. Massively popular with law enforcement throughout North America and also sold in the Middle East and Russia, the “Crown Vic” was durable, had lots of space, a decent amount of power and the street presence that a police car needs to be taken seriously.

Success in law enforcement was reflected in films and TV. The cops would drive a Crown Vic. Undercover FBI agents would hang around in an unmarked government plate Crown Vic. Whether it had police markings or not, the car ended up as something of an icon. And on the rare occasions it isn’t the law, the Crown Vic is also a popular choice for taxi drivers.

With some minor changes the Crown Vic stayed in production for 20 years, and despite being badly obsolete by 2011 it seems that police forces were reluctant to move on. Today, most of the Crown Vics on sale in the US are ex-police interceptors, many of which retain police colour schemes and are typically priced at $12,000 or less. Occasionally they are available in the UK and other countries having been personally imported. If ever you feel like remaking the Blues Brothers, then this car is probably for you.

The Crown Vic was a car aimed at the US market, but built in Canada. A decade earlier a very different car was aimed at the US market, but this time built in Northern Ireland. The DMC DeLorean (also called the DMC-12) was a two-seater sports car made famous by the DeLorean Time Machine in the Back to the Future Trilogy. But their relative paths to fame were very different.

Where the Crown Vic was a highly successful car in its niche, the DeLorean was frankly a disaster. Launched in 1981, it was only in production for just less than two years. A troubled development history compared with woeful quality control issues killed the company after only 9000 were built.

The history of the DeLorean is complicated and fascinating. The brainchild of ex-GM boss John Z DeLorean, the car was originally envisaged as a showcase for safety features using several highly advanced production techniques that had not been used before. These blue sky ideas were continually pared back as development proceeded.

Ultimately, what was delivered to customers had potential.  The overall design of the car was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign who – frankly – has designed some of the best-looking cars ever produced. The DeLorean had a clean, sleek design in bare stainless steel with gull-wing doors that gave the car plenty of “wow” factor. The tidy design continued inside, in an era when car interiors could be a thrown-together mess.

Early and late model DMC DeLoreans
Early and late model DMC DeLoreans

Added to the genius of Giugiaro was the work of legendary Lotus founder, Colin Chapman. Chapman was brought in quite late to the project to re-engineer the car in a way that it could actually be built. Chapman’s design borrowed heavily from Lotus. Things were looking promising with these two names on board.

A sticking point was the engine – originally designed to be a Ford V6, DeLorean then looked to use a complete drivetrain from Citroën before settling on the V6 offering from Peugeot-Renault-Volvo, placed in the back rather than the mid-engined arrangement planned. Although this 2.85L V6 was a solid enough engine it only gave a moderate 130 horsepower, and the shift to the back of the car impacted the handling and overall stance.

Despite having big names on board, the production of the DeLorean was plagued with problems. The British government forked out a staggering £77 million to help build a car factory in Northern Ireland. Now, although Northern Ireland has a rich engineering history, especially in shipbuilding and aircraft, it basically had none at all when it came to cars. So, everything needed to be built from scratch, and employees needed comprehensive training. Predictably, this led to severe problems with build quality – and cars leaving the factory often required extensive remediation work to make them saleable.

Faults were numerous, resulting in many recalls, and the goodwill that customers had soon evaporated. And even if everything worked properly, the unpainted stainless steel panels were incredibly difficult to repair if they suffered damage – you couldn’t simply fill and paint – and the car was underpowered compared with rivals such as the Lotus Esprit.

Sales were weak and unsold cars began piling up. Just a year into production, DMC were in serious financial trouble. Financial restructuring, incentives and improvements in quality didn’t help. In October 1982 things took a weird turn when John DeLorean was arrested trying to traffic cocaine in order to generate money to prop up the company. DeLorean was later acquitted though, as details of the FBI’s sting operation undermined the prosecutor’s case.

By the end of 1982 it was all over, except for a large number of unsold and heavily discounted vehicles. Several of these ended up with Universal Studios where they were converted for filming the Back to the Future trilogy. By the time the film came out in 1985, the DeLorean was something of a joke. The movie trilogy transformed it into a cult car – and over the years many replica DeLorean time machines have been built on top of the original cars.

Today, prices for a DMC DeLorean range between £30,000 to £50,000. But it’s not an easy car to live with, but I suppose if you find it too troublesome you could always take it back to the time before you bought it..

..and for the record, the Internet Movie Cars Database has nearly 10,000 references for the Crown Vic and 165 for the DMC Delorean. Make up your own mind about which is the biggest star.

Image credits:
Krokodyl via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
IChurakv via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0

Monday, 11 January 2021

Commodore VIC-20 (1981)

Launched January 1981

Microcomputers had been on a rollercoaster ride since the launch of the holy trinity of the Commodore PET, Apple II and Tandy TRS-80 in 1977. These early computers were expensive and limited in capabilities, so take-up was somewhat limited – especially in the home. But if there was one machine that finally brought the micro into living rooms and bedrooms all over the world, it was probably the Commodore VIC-20.

Commodore VIC-20

Selling more than a million units in its first year of production, the VIC-20 was based on the familiar (and Commodore-owned) MOS Technology 6502 CPU combined with a graphics-and-sound chip called the VIC which MOS had designed but had yet to find a market for.

Graphics were a fairly blocky 176 x 184 pixels in a maximum of 16 colours, with a fairly ungainly text resolution of 22 x 23 characters (at a time when business computers would have up to 80 columns)
Sound was a slightly more impressive three channels plus a noise generator. A tiny 5Kb of RAM left just 3.5Kb for BASIC applications, but it could be expanded to 32Kb.

BASIC itself was a cut-down version of the one in the PET – a smaller codebase was needed because of the limited ROM and RAM in the VIC-20. Unfortunately this meant that the VIC-20 lacked any commands to control graphics or sound in BASIC which had to be done through a series of POKES and PEEKS. The later VIC Super Expander cartridge helped, but BASIC programs written using it could only be used by people owning the expander cartridge.

Everything was packaged in an attractive and durable single box costing a shade less than $300 which would need to be connected to a domestic TV set (via an external modulator) or composite video monitor… which wasn’t included in the price. Nor included was the almost-essential “datasette” cassette drive needed for storage, but even taking all this into consideration the price was a steal compared to the previous generation of computers. And in a bare-minimum configuration you could use the family TV and a software cartridge plugged into the back.

It was an expandable system – floppy disks and joysticks being a common option, but the built-in serial port and CBM-488 bus allowed a variety of other add-ons including the sub-$100 VICMODEM which sold over a million units.

VIC-20 plus peripherals

About a year-and-a-half later, the VIC-20’s successor was launched – the Commodore 64. Almost identical in exterior design, the C64 was a much more complex and expensive beast. The VIC continued to be sold alongside the C64, by the time it was discontinued in January 1985 (four years after launch) it was priced at less than $100.

The VIC-20 cemented Commodore as one of the key players in the early 80s microcomputer market, but of course that position wouldn’t last. Today a Commodore VIC-20 in very good condition can sell for up to £400, the VIC-compatible floppy disk units are much in demand and can also sell for hundreds of pounds. Alternatively, the Linux-based THEC64 includes a VIC-20 emulation mode in convincing replica hardware for much less.

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY 4.0
Marcin Wichary / MagentaGreen via Wikimedia Commons -  CC-BY-2.0

Monday, 28 December 2020

2020: things that didn’t quite make the cut

This year we’ve covered gadgets and inventions from the 1800s and up. But there are plenty of other things that had anniversaries this year that we didn’t mention.

One of the most important inventions debuted in 1810 – the tin can. A key product of the industrial revolution, the tin can answered many of the millennia-old questions about how to preserve foodstuffs. More reliable and palatable than salting, drying, pickling and a variety of other methods this humble tin can meant food security for growing populations in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Also hailing from the nineteenth century was celluloid, a versatile class of materials that were pioneered in billiard balls in 1870, and then found their way into many other products from toys to films. However, celluloid’s habit of bursting into flames means that it is rarely used as a material today.

Canned food in a store in Hong Kong, Easter brooch with celluloid flowers

Somewhat related to celluloid is cellophane, a lightweight and flexible material that lent its properties to Scotch Tape, introduced in 1930. Also from 1930 – and perhaps a little bit more edible – is the Hostess Twinkie cake bar. Allegedly, Twinkies last forever – but eat a decade-old box at your own risk.

Vintage scotch tape container, Twinkie cake bars

Fast forward to 1960 and the white heat of technology forges something even more high-tech than sticky tape and cake bars, with the laser. Don’t ask me to explain how these things work, they just do. Pew pew.

Visible lasers being demonstrated

People who remember the home computers of the 1980s probably remember the Commodore VIC-20 – but it had an immediate predecessor in the shape of the VIC-1001 which was sold successfully in Japan only. The main difference between the two is that the VIC-1001 supports Japanese Katakana characters.

Commodore VIC-1001

By 1990 of course things were really getting more advanced. The Sega Game Gear was an 8-bit handheld console that carved a significant market for itself. Another 8-bit games machine, the Commodore 64 Games System (or simply the C64GS) was a more traditional console based closely on the legendary Commodore 64 home computer. The C64GS held great promise with the potential of a huge games library, but it failed to deliver in a spectacular way.

Sega Game Gear, Commodore 64 Games System

In the same year, the Macintosh Classic breathed a bit more life into a familiar format at a sub-$1000 price point, but the 68000 processor was getting a bit long in the tooth by then. More powerful, but three times the cost, was the 68030-based Macintosh IIsi which was much more forward-looking.

Apple Macintosh Classic, Macintosh IIsi

Handheld gadgets continued to develop, and in 2000 the Sharp J-SH04 was launched in Japan which was the world’s first recognisable camera phone, with a rear-facing 0.11 megapixel camera. It wasn’t great, but it set a pattern that other early camera phones improved on.  

Sharp J-SH04

That’s it for 2020, a difficult year for many people. Let’s hope that 2021 will be better. A big shout out to all those key workers, healthcare professionals and everybody trying to be socially responsible (or even just managing to keep themselves sane) this year. 

Image credits:
Canned food in a store in Hong Kong: Bairgae Daishou 33826 via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Easter brooch with celluloid flowers: Pinke via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Vintage scotch tape container: Improbcat via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
Twinkie cake bars: Photog Bill via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Visible lasers being demonstrated: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons – Public domain
Commodore VIC-1001: Thomas Conté via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sega Game Gear: James Case via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Commodore 64 Games System: Thomas Conté via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0
Macintosh Classic: Christian Brockmann via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Macintosh IIsi: Benoît Prieur via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Sharp J-SH04: Morio via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0