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