Sunday, 29 January 2023

Oric-1 (1983)

Introduced January 1983

If you were in the market for a home computer in Britain in 1983, there would typically be three models that most people would choose: the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Acorn BBC Micro. There were other machines (such as the Dragon 32), and it did seem that this fast-growing market was ripe for more players.

One interested player was Tangerine Computer Systems, who had made the Microtan 65 some years earlier. Tangerine certainly had the technical skills to make a competitive machine, and seeing a gap in the market they set about creating the Oric-1 microcomputer, though a newly-formed subsidiary named Oric Products International.


The Oric-1 was very much aimed against the Spectrum end of the market, similarly priced and similar too in size. Based on a 6502 rather than a Z80, it was (like the Spectrum) available in 16Kb and 48Kb varieties – although a peculiarity of the hardware design meant that the latter actually had 64Kb of memory, the top 16Kb not be accessible without tinkering. The sound on the Oric was far better than on the Spectrum, using the popular AY-3-8910 chip. Four different graphics modes were available – more like the BBC than the Spectrum, and the inbuilt BASIC was pretty powerful as well. Last but not least, the chicklet keyboard had small, hard buttons which were much nicer to use than the Spectrum’s notorious “dead flesh” keyboard.

The main problem was bugs – the Oric-1’s ROM was full of them, and also the cassette interface was unreliable - which was a major problem for a home computer of the time. One other problem was that the promised peripherals – a printer interface, modem and floppy disk drive – ended up being later into production. Disappointments aside, it was a good system and sold at least a couple of hundred thousand units while it was on sale. 

Oric-1 and Oric Atmos
Oric-1 and Oric Atmos

Oric struggled for money, but a takeover from a company called Edenspring Investments led to more money being available, leading to the improved Oric Atmos being launched in 1984. However, the home computer market was heading for a crash and Oric ended up in receivership – twice – before finally going bust in 1987. However, licensed cloned versions continued including the Bulgarian Pravetz 8D. A sad end, but of course today none of Acorn, Commodore or Sinclair are with us either so perhaps not unexpected.

Today the Oric-1 is an uncommon but collectable device, with prices for good systems being a couple of hundred pounds or so, the later Atmos commands higher prices and rarer derivatives more still. Perhaps in the end it wasn’t a significant machine, but there was

Image credits:
Rama via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0 FR
Martin Wichary via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0

Saturday, 28 January 2023

Apple Lisa (1983)

Launched January 1983

In 1983 the Apple Computer Company was just seven years old, but had grown very rapidly on the back of strong sales of the Apple II. By the early 1980s though, the Apple II was looking increasingly out-of-date. In 1980 the Apple III was launched, designed to  fix many of the shortcomings of its predecessor, but it was a deeply unreliable and poorly-built product and was a sales disaster.

The launch of the IBM PC in 1981 saw Apple struggling in the business market, so it was very important that whatever they came up with next would be a success. Sadly for Apple, their next product – the Apple Lisa – ended up as another disaster, even if it did seem to hold great promise.

Apple Lisa 1
Apple Lisa 1

The key feature of the Lisa was the mouse-drive graphical interface, the computer unit itself was an elegant single-box design with an integrated 12 inch monitor. It looked very different in both hardware and software terms from the competition, and both the mainstream media and specialist press were very excited.

Development of the Lisa had started years earlier, at first with modest aims but quickly becoming influenced by the work that fellow Silicon Valley engineers at Xerox were doing with their Alto platform which was being developed into the Xerox Star. When Steve Jobs saw the Alto’s graphical interface he was highly impressed, and the Apple team sought to emulate and improve on it. The concepts of the mouse-driven user environment were not new - Doug Engelbart had demonstrated the concepts as far back as 1968 – but it was only really in the 1980s that computer hardware started to become affordable enough to make it a reality.

The mouse was still a novelty when the Apple Lisa was launched, as this cover from Personal Computer World shows
The mouse was still a novelty when the Apple Lisa was launched, as this cover from Personal Computer World shows

Unlike previous Apple models which were based on the 6502, the Lisa was built around a Motorola 68000, clocked at 5MHz along with one megabyte of RAM. Neither the CPU nor RAM were very fast, even by 1983 standards. The display was a 720 x 364 pixel black-and-white unit with no greyscale capabilities. Twin 5.25-inch variable speed floppy drives (known by the name “Twiggy”) offered a lot of storage, but were very unreliable. The Lisa was also designed to be used with a 5MB external hard drive, and a variety of printers were available.

The look and feel of the operating system was far in advance of everything outside of Xerox’s labs. Based largely around the file manager, it became the template for the OS used on the later Macintosh. A crude form of protected memory was available, but overall the operating system ran sluggishly on the hardware. The Lisa had a variety of office applications available, including a word processor, spreadsheet, graphical applications and utilities.

This may all sound very familiar because the Macintosh, launched a year later, also did many of the things that the Lisa did. But the Lisa is not the Mac’s predecessor, instead this ended up as a dead end which cost Apple a lot of money. Not only was the hardware and software unstable, but the price of the Lisa started at an eye-watering $9,995 in 1983 money (around $30,000 today). Any appeal that the Lisa may have had was undermined by the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, which did most of the things the Lisa could do, but more reliably and at a quarter of the price.

The Lisa flopped, selling only about 10,000 units. A redesigned Lisa 2 in 1984 was cheaper, more reliable but more underpowered than the original. There was some interest from customers who wanted a device with a bigger display than the standard Mac, but the Lisa needed an emulator to run Mac software. In 1985 the final iteration of the Lisa was launched, as the Macintosh XL which proved to be at least of interest to consumers, but Apple ended up selling it at a loss.

Killed off by its own internal competition, a combination of cheap or untested components and an enormous price tag, the Lisa is one of the biggest failures in the history of Apple. Conversely the cut-down and more focussed version, the Macintosh, was one of the biggest successes. Today, a working Lisa system is very collectible and commands prices of thousands of dollars, although you are more likely to find the later Lisa 2 than the original.

Image credits:
Timothy Colegrove via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Paul Downey via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 1 January 2023

2022 – things that didn’t quite make the cut

We covered quite a bit of retro tech this year, but there are a few things we didn’t talk about that are still worth a mention.

Let’s start with the automotive world. One of the more unusual vehicles to ever be produced in quantity is the DUKW (colloquially called the “Duck”), a six-wheel drive amphibious vehicle designed during World War II and manufactured by General Motors from 1942 to 1945. Excelling in amphibious attacks and traversing beaches, the DUKW could carry supplies or troops in a wide variety of environments. 21,000 of these machines were built, and some are still in use as tourist attractions today.

Where the DUKW was a bit of a barge, the Volkswagen Phaeton – introduced in 2002 – was a different type of barge. A large luxury car, sharing some of its DNA with Bentleys, the Phaeton was a rare entry into the luxury car market for the Volkswagen marque. Elegant and very understated, the Phaeton was a very discrete vehicle which gained some fans, but most luxury buyers were not interested and it wasn’t a sales success even though production continued until 2016. Today, the Phaeton is an extremely inexpensive buy for what it is, but it can be prone to enormous garage bills if it goes wrong.

From real-world cars to a fictional one – the Knight Industries Two Thousand (or “KITT” for short) was one of the stars of the 1982 TV Show “Knight Rider”. Based on a Pontiac Trans Am, KITT featured its own AI system which was capable of self-driving, speech recognition and synthesis, in-car communications (all of which are available today) and… errr… well a load of stuff that frankly isn’t. 23 KITT cars were made for filming, but most of these were destroyed. A handful of originals survive, but you are most likely to come across a replica.

DUKW, Volkswagen Phaeton, KITT Replica
DUKW, Volkswagen Phaeton, KITT Replica

Computers and cars came together in a different way with the 1982 Namco game, Pole Position. One of the first 16-bit arcade games, Pole Position offered unrivalled gameplay for a racing game, usually coming in a sit-down version with a proper steering wheel, pedals and gear shifter. The highest-grossing game of 1983, the game was officially ported to post microcomputer platforms of the time with many unofficial clones. 

Gaming was big in 1982, one mostly forgotten console that was launched that year was the ColecoVision. Selling strongly at launch due the bundled Donkey Kong game, this Z80-based system faded quickly and was out of production by 1985. Quite collectable today, a ColecoVision in good condition with games and accessories can cost you several hundred pounds.

Games consoles became popular in the 1980s, but the very first console was the Magnavox Odyssey launched in 1972. The basic but playable games were enhanced with accessories such as cards, dice and screen overlays. 350,000 Odyssey systems were sold over three years, today these are also very collectable with prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds.

Pole Position, ColecoVision, Magnavox Odyssey
Pole Position, ColecoVision, Magnavox Odyssey

Taking another step backwards, 1962 saw the world’s first computer-controlled factory running on the Ferranti Argus industrial computer platform. Argus was originally designed for military applications, but it found its true strength in running as an industrial controller. Development continued into the 1980s, seeing use in everything from oil production to telecommunications, and importantly also in controlling nuclear power stations where they are still in use today.

Another technology designed originally for military use was the frequency-hopping spread spectrum. The concept was originally patented in 1942 as a way of preventing radio-guided torpedoes from being jammed by the enemy. A paper tape in the torpedo and guidance system allowed the radio frequency to change in a predetermined way, avoiding enemy jamming. This technology eventually found itself into Bluetooth and WiFi communications. Although this all sounds very dry, the inventor was Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to being one of the greatest actresses of her era was also a talented inventor.

While we are on the subject of war and weapons, the Gatling Gun was the world’s first widely-used machine gun, in service from 1862 with the US Army and finding its way into use worldwide until the early 20th century. The Gatling Gun marked the beginning of industrialised warfare and a technological arms race that continues to this day.

1970s Ferranti Argus system, Hedy Lamarr, Gatling Gun
1970s Ferranti Argus system, Hedy Lamarr, Gatling Gun

120 years later, 1982 saw another technological race as the computer systems evolved rapidly in every market from home users to research institutions. One of the leading companies of the time was Digital Equipment Corporation (usually known as “DEC” or just “Digital”). The DEC Rainbow was an attempt to compete for the same market as the IBM PC, running on both a Zilog Z80 and Intel 8088 processor, the Rainbow could run either CP/M or MS-DOS. Despite the “Rainbow” name, the machine was monochrome only by default, outputting to a monitor very similar to a VT220. Despite the support of one of the biggest names in the industry, it was not a success except for the iconic LK201 keyboard which was widely emulated.

Where the Rainbow was an attempt to create a new microcomputer from scratch, the DEC Professional was an attempt to shrink the PDP-11 into a desktop package. Although a promising idea, poor execution and market indifference let to its failure.

One of the more advanced machines of the time was the DISER Lilith, launched commercially in 1982 after being used as a research platform for a couple of years. Unusually, the Lilith ran Modula-2 and has a large portrait graphical display. Based in part on work done on the Xerox Alto, the Lilith was probably too advanced to be a sales success but remained influential, especially the mouse design which later influenced the first mice designed by Logitech.

If PDP-11s and the Lilith just weren’t powerful enough and you had very, very deep pockets you migth consider the Cray X-MP, launched in 1982 at an approximate starting price of $15 million. For that you got not only the fastest computer in the world, but also one of the most remarkable looks with a central processor core that looked like nothing else – complete with padded seats. The X-MP was a success, and there were a number of successors. Today, Cray is part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

DEC Rainbow, DEC Professional running as a VAX Conole, Lilith Prototype, Cray X-MP
DEC Rainbow, DEC Professional running as a VAX Conole, Lilith Prototype, Cray X-MP

The X-MP was a niche but successful product, as was the Bloomberg Terminal which was originally launched in December 1982. A specialist system aimed at stock market traders, the original terminal was a simple device that could connect to any type of financial data that Bloomberg could make available. Several generations followed, built on custom hardware and software. Today the Bloomberg terminal is still available, but the latest generation will cost you around $2000 per month.

Aimed at a rather broader market – which it failed to reach – the Jupiter Ace also ended up being popular with a very specific niche. Somewhat similar to the ZX81 in terms of hardware, the Ace had the unusual feature of running Forth as a programming language instead of BASIC. Forth was very well suited to simple computers, however it turned out that most customers wanted to learn BASIC instead. Despite making a splash at launch, sales were low and production ended in 1984. Today the Ace is very collectable with good examples selling for £1500 or even more.

1982 was a good year for computer systems that might have hit the big time had circumstances been different. The Sord M5 is one of those, an elegant Japanese system running on a Z80 with 16Kb of RAM, colour graphics and sound plus a cartridge slot. The M5 sold well in Japan, and saw some popularity in the UK (as the CGL M5) and Czechoslovakia. Locally-produced derivatives of the M5 also sold well in South Korea. Although it showed promise, by the time it hit the shops the market was becoming crowded and it didn’t last long. Working M5s in good condition can sell for £500 or more, and cartridges are worth around £50 to £100 or so.

2010s Bloomberg Terminal, Jupiter Ace, Sord M5
2010s Bloomberg Terminal, Jupiter Ace, Sord M5

Not all computing innovations are welcome. The world’s first computer virus – Elk Cloner – was also invented in 1982 by Rick Skrenta. This boot sector virus infected Apple II floppy disks, although it usually did no real harm.

One other technology product to come to market in 1982 was the CD player. The world’s first model was the Sony CDP-101 launched in Japan in October. In the rest of the world, the Philips CD100 was the first available model. Sales were slow at first due to the cost, but by the late 1990s and early part of the 2000s the CD player became the most popular medium for music.

Elk Cloner, Sony CDP-101
Elk Cloner, Sony CDP-101

A decade later, 1992 was a pretty good year for technology too. This was the year that Windows 3.1 launched, a significant upgrade to the first usable version of Windows – Windows 3.0 launched in 1990 – version 3.1 added more polish and stability. For many people, Windows 3.1 was their very first experience of Microsoft Windows.

Perhaps not many Windows machines of that era are memorable, but the IBM ThinkPad launched in 1992 had a reputation for good design, robustness and reliability. A strong seller for IBM, especially to corporate customers, the ThinkPad line was eventually acquired by Lenovo in 2005 and is still made today.

An ideal peripheral to complement your Windows-based laptop might be the HP LaserJet 4. An exceptionally reliable laser printer, it was also more compact than previous models, easier to maintain, faster and gave better quality printouts. The LaserJet 4 was capable of producing over a million pages during its individual lifetime, and although parts did wear out they could be easily replaced. It was easy to connect to a LAN via an optional network card, or you could use a parallel cable. Although seemingly obsolete today, aftermarket spares kits are still available indicating that there are still LaserJet 4 series printers still in use.

Windows 3.1 box, IBM ThinkPad, HP LaserJet 4
Windows 3.1 box, IBM ThinkPad, HP LaserJet 4

Not every computer of the time was a Windows or Intel-based computer. The Atari Falcon030 was the final evolution of the once-popular Atari ST line. Based on a Motorola 68030 CPU with a Motorola 56001 DSP supporting sound and graphics, the Falcon030 made a good games machine, was excellent for music and MIDI interfacing and came with a wide variety of expansion options. However, Atari was struggling and the Falcon030 was dropped just a year later. Around the same time Atari was working on the Falcon040, a 68040 power version. The Falcon is another collectable system, with prices for a good example being well in excess of £1000.

DEC was also coming up with innovative products in 1992. The DEC Alpha 21064 CPU was a powerful RISC processor designed for workstations and more powerful systems. Capable of much faster performance than Intel’s rival CPUs, the Alpha architecture saw some success in the 1990s but it faded away after DEC was bought out, first by Compaq and then by HP.

Atari Falcon030, DEC Alpha 21064
Atari Falcon030, DEC Alpha 21064

Another decade later to 2002, and mobile phones were becoming popular, and some of these were beginning to blur the line between a phone and a computer with the introduction of smartphones. The Sony Ericsson P800 was a Symbian-based device with a stylus-driven touchscreen and a camera, which is effectively one of the ancestors of modern smartphones today. Due to the high price and complexity, it didn’t sell in huge numbers but it did appeal to those who could see the advantage of having a computer in your pocket.

If you wanted something simpler and more robust, you could try the rubbery Nokia 5100. A weird-looking thing by modern standards, the 5100 comes from a golden age of phone design where every new model had its own distinctive looks. The 5100's key selling point was its robustness, although most Nokia phones of that era seemed pretty indestructible. 

Technology was coming to other more mundane devices as well. The Roomba is an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, first introduced in 2002. Capable of cleaning a floor by itself and then returning to its dock to recharge, the Roomba is more of a pet than a domestic appliance – sometimes needing rescuing when it has gotten itself stuck on something. Twenty years of development have made Roombas even smarter.

Sony Ericsson P800, Nokia 5100, 2002-era Roomba
Sony Ericsson P800, Nokia 5100, 2002-era Roomba

Finally… well, a different sort of invention altogether. 120 years ago in 1902, the Teddy Bear was invented. Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the teddy became the most popular type of soft toy of all time. Go and cuddle one right now.

1903 Teddy Bear
1903 Teddy Bear

Image credits:
DUKW: 270865 via Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0
VW Phaeton: Greg Gjerdingen via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0
KITT Replica: Interceptor73 via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0
Namco Pole Position: Steve McFarland via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
ColecoVision: Georges Seguinia via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Magnavox Odyssey: Jesmar via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Ferranti Argus 700: Rain Rabbit via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Hedy Lamarr: MGM via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Gatling Gun: Max Smith via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
DEC Rainbow 100: David Alcubierre via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
DEC Professional running as VAX Console: Michael L. Umbricht via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Prototype Lilith: Tomislav Medak via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Cray XMP: Rama via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0 FR
2010s Bloomberg Terminal: E.W. Scripps School of Journalism - CC BY-NC 2.0
Jupiter Ace: Soupmeister via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sord M5: Staffan Vilcans via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Elk Cloner: Richard Skrenta via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Sony CDP-101: Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Microsoft Windows 3.1: Darklanlan via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
IBM ThinkPad: Jarek PiĆ³rkowski via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
HP LaserJet 4: DuffDudeX1 via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Atari Falcon030: Wolfgang Stief via Flickr – CC0
DEC Alpha 21064: Dirk Oppelt via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Sony Ericsson P800: Sony Ericsson Press Release
Nokia 5100: Nokia Press Release
Roomba: Larry D Moore via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 4.0
1903 Teddy Bear: Tim Evanson via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0