Tuesday 28 December 2021

2021: things that didn’t quite make the cut

This year we mostly concentrated on the year ending in "1", covering gadgets and technology from 1941, 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. It turns out to be a decent last digit for computers, games consoles and cars in particular. But here are some of the things that were also notable that didn't get covered.

2011 saw the launch of two rival handheld gaming platforms that were evolutions of previous devices. The Nintendo 3DS had a dual display capable of displaying glasses-free 3D on an otherwise modest hardware platform, the Sony PlayStation Vita was a more powerful device but also a more traditional gaming console. Both products competed directly against each other, but it was the Nintendo that won out although the Sony did gain a dedicated fanbase.

Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita
Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita

A decade earlier, in 2001, the Nintendo GameCube was launched against the Sony PlayStation 2 and the original Microsoft Xbox. In this fight, the GameCube came in third - in quite a bruising result for Nintendo.

Skipping back another decade to 1991 we see the Commodore CDTV, a repackaged Amiga that was meant to compete against the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo SNES. It was a failure, and helped to accelerate Commodore to its demise a few years later.

Nintendo GameCube and Commodore CDTV
Nintendo GameCube and Commodore CDTV

In the early eighties, the best place for video games was the local arcade and 1981 was part of the golden era of arcade machines. We've covered quite a few from this year, but Namco's Galaga and Atari's Tempest were both notable and were very different types of shoot-em-up. And if you fancied something different from endless slaughter, there was Taito's Qix which was more of a puzzle game where the player had to fill the screen with boxes while being chased by a mysterious electric entity.

Galaga, Tempest and Qix
Galaga, Tempest and Qix

None of this would be possible without the microprocessor, and the first commercially-available device was the Intel 4004 which was launched in 1971. Originally designed for a calculator, the 4004 could be used for a variety of other purposes. A successful line of products followed for Intel, notably the x86 series of processors used in most PCs today.

The same year saw the release of the world's first floppy disks. Originally a huge 8 inches across (and very floppy), these inexpensive and transportable storage media and their 5.25 and 3.5 inch descendants were the standard way of transferring files into the 1990s and beyond.

A decade later, the Intel 8085 and a pair of 5.25" floppies could be found in the ergonomically designed Nokia MikroMikko. Nokia Data had a series of mergers and acquisitions, first with Siemens and then ICL until finally vanishing into Fujitsu.

Intel 4004, 8" floppy disk (with 3.5" for comparison), Nokia MikroMikko
Intel 4004, 8" floppy disk (with 3.5" for comparison), Nokia MikroMikko

Nokia have made many things over their long history, including car tyres. Today you might find Nokian winter tyres on a Nissan Patrol or Toyota Land Cruiser - both these rugged and practical 4X4s were originally launched in 1951 and were heavily inspired by the wartime-era Willys Jeep.

Nissan Patrol (circa 1958) and Toyota Land Cruiser (circa 1966)
Nissan Patrol (circa 1958) and Toyota Land Cruiser (circa 1966)

If exploring in your Japanese offroader with your Finnish tyres, you probably want a good system to tell you where you actually were in the world. Today you'd use a GPS system, but that wasn't an option back in 1981 when Honda announced the world's first in-car navigation system, the Electro Gyro-Cator. Instead of using satellites, it used inertial navigation and a set of transparent maps fitted over a screen. It was bulky, expensive and of limited use, but eventually the first in-car GPS system was launched in 1990 by Mazda.

Honda Electro Gyro-Cator
Honda Electro Gyro-Cator

Stretching things out a bit more… if you found yourself off-roading in your big Japanese 4X4 with Finnish tyres in the 1970s or 1980s and you wanted to make a high-quality video recording of your journeys, the choice of professionals was a Sony U-matic recording system which was launched in 1971. Capable of capturing broadcast-quality images, the U-matic was the choice of professionals. Smaller than a traditional film camera, most units were still quite bulky and required a crew of two or three - one for the camera, one for the recorder unit and perhaps one for the microphone boom. Perhaps on your exploration into the wilderness you might want to pack some supplies, and there's a good chance that these might include Heinz Baked Beans, a staple of tinned food since 1901. Luckily the Japanese make some of the best can openers in the world too..

Sony U-matic in a carry bag and Heinz Baked Beans
Sony U-matic in a carry bag and Heinz Baked Beans

Image credits:
Nintendo 3DS: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
PlayStation Vita: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Nintedo GameCube: BugWarp via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Commodore CDTV: Patric Klöter via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Tempest: Russell Davies via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Galaga: David via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Qix: Joho345 via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Intel 4004: Simon Claessen via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
8" floppy disk: Michael Holley via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Nokia Data MikroMikko: Nokia
Nissan Patrol (1958): Sicnag via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Toyota Land Cruiser (1966): Sicnag via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Electro Gyrocator: Honda
Sony U-matic: Joybot via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Heinz Baked Beans: Ian Kennedy via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Friday 17 December 2021

BBC Microcomputer (1981)

Introduced December 1981

If you were to make a shortlist of microcomputers that epitomised the very peak of 8-bit technology, then the BBC Micro would probably be part of that list, especially if you were British. Pushing the limits of what was possible, the BBC Microcomputer (often just referred to as the “Beeb”) introduced several features that were considerably more advanced than rivals and produced a series of machine that were available – in one form of another – for 13 years, leaving behind a lasting and arguably world-changing legacy.

BBC Microcomputer
BBC Microcomputer

The story starts in the late 1970s in the wake of the launch of the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET – three computers that made computing relatively affordable and simple, and which challenged traditional large-scale computers used in big businesses. It wasn’t just on the desktop either, microprocessors were finding their way into everything and it seemed very likely that the 1980s was going to be a digital age – one that both the British government and the BBC thought the country was ill-prepared for.

The BBC set out to educate the masses, in line with its public service charter. This idea became the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, and at the heart of the project was an idea to teach people how to use a computer – which for practical purposes would concentrate on a single model of machine.

But which to choose? It needed to be a British company ideally, and there were several to choose from. Promising systems had been developed by Tangerine, Research Machines, Sinclair, Acorn, Nascom and Transam… but the BBC chose Newbury Laboratories and their still-under-development microcomputer which later became the Grundy NewBrain.

The NewBrain itself has an interesting history, but it didn’t become the BBC Micro. Production problems meant that the computer wasn’t going to be ready for sale in the BBC’s timescale so instead they approached Acorn who had achieved some success with their 6502-based Atom machine. Acorn were already working on a replacement for the Atom, called the Proton.

Despite being only a few years old, Acorn had quite a lot of development under its belt. In addition to the Atom, they had a range of Eurocard systems that offered expandability and reliability, but at a price. The Proton would be an expandable and fast system, but when the BBC approached Acorn it was only a paper design but a frantic effort managed to create a prototype which was stable enough to show the BBC… who were impressed. Acorn were offered the contract, subject to some design changes.

The Proton pushed the 6502 processor to 2MHz, twice that of the competition. Paired with fast memory sourced from Hitachi and some clever circuitry to make everything work at these breakneck speeds, the Proton was no slouch. Internal memory was a maximum of 64 kilobytes, 16Kb of ROM was the operating system, another 16Kb of ROM was BASIC or any other application that could be loaded from the four ROM sockets on the board, leaving 32Kb of RAM (on the Model B) which was shared between the computer’s workspace, graphics and the rest could be used for programs and data.

There wasn’t a lot of RAM in the machine as the 6502 could only address 64Kb of total memory, and half of that was the system’s ROMs on this machine. Futhermore high-resolution graphics could take up 20Kb of the 32Kb of RAM, and with about 6Kb of RAM as the computer’s own working area this could mean that less than 6Kb was available for the user. This wasn’t a lot and it would have badly impacted the usefulness of the machine. Worse still, 32Kb of RAM was a feature of the more expensive Model B where the cheaper Model A had just 16Kb which was not even enough to display high-resolution graphics.

However, the BBC insisted that any machine they were to commission needed to be able to display Teletext, and Acorn had already implemented this in some of its machines using a Mullard SAA5050 chip. This gave 40 column text and rudimentary block graphics while taking up just 1Kb of the precious RAM. Known as display “Mode 7”, this feature became a key part of the BBC Micro’s success.

Then there was expansion. The Model B had lots of ports – on the back were three types of video output, a serial port, cassette interface plus an analogue-to-digital port plus an optional Econet network interface. Underneath were more ports that used a ribbon cable connection – a parallel port, a connector for the optional floppy disk drive plus a power output and then a user port, 1MHz bus port and a clever interface called the Tube. Apart from the floppy disk and network ports, everything was included in the BBC Model B as standard.

The Model A was based on the same board as the Model B, but lacked a lot of the interfaces. It was possible to add them in though, but this required some work with a pile of components and a soldering iron. Upgrading either model to a floppy disk drive or Econet required opening up the machine and plugging in some new components too.

With all of these interfaces you could hook the BBC up to just about anything, assuming you had the right cables, including lab equipment, joysticks, mice, modems, printers, Teletext and Viewdata adapters and more. You could do that with other computers too, but the Tube interface was something different again.

Acorn built the system to be expandable, and the Tube was a way of connecting a second processor to the BBC. This wasn’t a coprocessor, these units essentially took over and reduced the BBC Micro itself to handling input and output only. These processors could be anything at all – Acorn (eventually) provided a 6502 or Z80 (both with 64Kb of their own RAM) and a National Semiconductor 32016 with up to 1MB of RAM. Other companies produced other second processors too, including the Motorola 68000 or Intel 8088. Because the work was now split between two computers, these solutions could be both fast and made lots of RAM available. Although none of these add-ons were very common, they did offer a lot of power for the price.

BBC Micro with Teletext Adapter and Second Processor
BBC Micro with Teletext Adapter and Second Processor

Mostly though, BBC setups were more modest. Typically paired with one or two 5.25” floppy disks (which could cost as much as the computer), a printer and a TV (or if you were lucky a Microvitec Cub monitor). They were versatile machines for small businesses, were pretty good for games (although the lack of RAM was always a problem) but most of all they succeeded in education where their robust design and wide variety of software made them the most common computer in schools at the time.

The built-in BASIC was also very fast and allowed structured programming, becoming a popular platform for bedroom coders who would then take their skills out into the real world when they started careers in IT.

Games were always a bit of a problem – compared to the rival Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64, the lack of RAM meant porting popular games from those platforms difficult or impossible. But in 1984, Acornsoft announced Elite - – space trading gaming the capitalised on the strengths of the BBC. In Elite, the player flies a spaceship flying through an impressively rendered 3D space environment with wire frame graphics with hidden line removal. The galaxy the player is in is procedurally generated, a semi-random technique that allows for a great variety of locations but with little memory used. Elite had a clever trick of managing to display two screen modes at the same time – something regarded as impossible – giving high-resolution black and white 3D at the top and a more colourful status bar at the bottom.


Upgraded versions of the BBC followed, the Model B+64 and B+128 adding more RAM through paged memory, and the more substantially upgraded BBC Master which took the computer into the 1990s. A cheaper version of the BBC called the Acorn Electron met with limited success. But Acorn had something else up their sleeve which was ultimately more important – the Acorn Archimedes, the world’s first production computer with an ARM processor. The ARM itself was designed by Acorn and was largely shaped by their experience with the simple, speedy 6502 found in the BBC.

Acorn Electron
Acorn Electron

Because it was both a popular machine and very reliable, there are lots of BBC Micros on the market today. Typically the capacitors in the power supply fail over time and need replacing, but other than that there are few problems. Floppy disk drives are another matter though, these can be quite rare. A complete working system with accessories can be worth well over £500.

You can argue at length what the ultimate 8-bit computer was, but the unique expandability options of the BBC surely make it a contender in any contest. The ARM processor which it inspired is – of course – what the world runs on today,

Image credits:
StuartBrady via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
marcus_jb1973 via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Steve Elliott via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Adam Jenkins via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Saturday 4 December 2021

Renault Avantime vs Renault Vel Satis (2001)

Introduced 2001

French cars are cool. That’s a fact. Big French cars are cooler. Quirky big French cars are cooler still. And in 2001, Renault launched not one... but two quirky big French cars for our delight – the Renault Avantime and Renault Vel Satis.

The name “Avantime” is a portmanteau* of the French word “Avant” (“Before”) and the English word “Time”. It wasn’t like anything else on the market at the time – a sort of cross between a grand tourer, MPV, coupé and convertible. These days we’d think of it as a crossover, but twenty years ago customers were baffled.

Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.
Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.

Like the Vel Satis, the Avantime was designed by Renault’s legendary chief designer Patrick Le Quément. But unlike the Vel Satis, the Avantime was built by Matra who a history in aerospace, defence and motor racing and who somewhere had along the way created the magnificent Matra Rancho.

The Rancho was really just a Simca van converted into the world’s first MPV with the addition of some fibreglass, seats and plastic panels. Although it was a modest success, Matra took the idea further and created arguably the world’s first purpose-built MPV in their P18 prototype which they intended to sell to their long-time partners Chrysler-Simca. Chrysler were interested, but their business was collapsing and they were bought out by PSA (Peugeot Citroën) who weren’t interested in the concept at all.

Matra then sought out a new partner for this radical new car, and in the end Renault agreed to work with them. After some back-and-forth, the Renault Espace was launched in 1984… although the original still had many components from the Simca parts bins. Consumers did not understand the Espace at first – huge, radically shaped and quite different from anything else on European roads. However, once customers “got it” the Espace became a significant success.

Matra was a relatively small company though, and in order to build enough Espaces for Renault they had to drop their sports car line and give 100% of production over the to the new MPV. The Espace II was launched in 1991 with the same basic formula but a more Renault style, followed by the Espace III in 1996 which introduced a radical new interior.

Hundreds of thousands of Espaces were built by Matra, but Matra’s automotive division had just one customer…. Renault. And in 2002 Renault switched the production of the new Espace IV to their own factory in Sandouville. This was potentially very bad news for Matra.

Renault’s solution was to co-design a new car based on the Espace which would utilise Matra’s own engineering skills. Based on the same floorpan as the Espace, the Avantime had just four luxurious seats (squeezing in a fifth person at a pinch), two double-hinged pillarless doors, an almost completely glass roof with the largest production sunroof of the time, a cavernous boot, futuristic yet minimalistic interior all housed in a radical and coherent body based on Matra’s space frame engineering.

Typically this was all powered by a big 3 litre V6 engine and an automatic gearbox, combined with a soft ride for eating up the miles on the autoroute. One interesting feature was the “full air” mode, where at the press of a button all the windows would drop and the sunroof would open to create a sort-of-convertible. The lack of B-pillars helped the illusion of open-ness.
There was nothing else like it, and the Avantime didn’t fit into anybody’s pre-defined notion of what a car should be. Sure, it was a radical design… but so was the Espace and with that it just took a little while for consumers to understand that this was the car they needed.

So, sales of the Avantime were slow to begin with. Alas they stayed that way, with the model selling just over 8000 units worldwide rather than the 100,000 needed for profitability. Despite being critically acclaimed, it was a sales disaster. Matra’s automotive division went bankrupt, ending 40 years of innovative car designs..

..and yet, Renault consider the Avantime to be a design success even if it wasn’t a commercial one. Twenty years late, the huge bulk of the Avantime is not unlike the majority of other new cars. Even the esoteric two-door layout has found its way into other large cars. Today, the Avantime is recognised as being innovative… but nearly two decade too late to save Matra. This is a car that was ahead of its time in more ways than one.

Part of the problem with the Avantime may well have been the Renault Vel Satis. If you wanted a big, weird Renault then this was another choice you could make. A bit bigger than the Laguna, it was also designed by Patrick Le Quément but with a rather different design philosophy.

A large hatchback designed for executives and dignitaries, the Vel Satis was designed to look imposing. This was a car with presence rather than elegance, while not exactly ugly there was a hint of brutalism in the exterior design. Inside, the was comfortable and more conventional. The odd name - a bit like the Avantime's - was a combination of Velocity and Satisfaction.

Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.
Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.

It lent itself well to those who needed a car that people would notice without it looking too flashy. The President of France had one, which he loaned to Queen Elizabeth II. The French police would use them as unmarked police cars. These were serious motors.

The design never really fitted in with the rest of the Renault range of the time, with the result that it didn’t date in the same way. Although the Vel Satis is a rare site, especially in the UK, it still looks fresh.

A revision in 2005 kept the car going until 2009, although it wasn’t sold in the UK. About 64,000 were built, although just 1200 made it to the UK… even so, that was 8 times the number of Avantimes worldwide.

Both cars are uncommon these days, but it you are in the market for a big weird car with 20-year-old French electrics, then prices do vary depending on condition. The Avantime is probably the most collectable, with some prices going as high as £10,000 but mostly much cheaper. The Vel Satis can typically be picked up for a few thousand pounds, but it’s not as well-loved as the Avantime and numbers are dwindling fast.

Lovers of big weird French cars in the UK don’t have much choice. Although the fifth-gen Espace is pleasingly individual, it isn’t available in the UK. Other most other big French cars don’t have the character, with most big Renaults originating from Korea and Citroen and Peugeot producing badge-engineered Stellantis models you would be hard pushed to find anything quirky.

* literally meaning “coathanger”, a word created by merging two other words.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Rudolf Stricker via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0