back to article Gates, Woz, and the last 2,000 years of computing

It's weird to see something from your childhood displayed as an ancient cultural artifact. Here at the newly refurbished Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, I'm standing over a glass case that houses the Commodore 64, the same machine I begged my parents to buy me for Christmas in 1983. Compared to today's …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Mr_Pitiful

    Title! Shaken not Stirred

    My first 'computer' loved it too bits literaly

    programmed lighting sequencer using it's A to D converters and blew it up big time!

    well I was only 16

    Still there's a place in my heart for the Commodore 64

    It had very clunky keys though! much better than a ZX or any other Spectrum junk

    It must be the beer!!

    1. Bilgepipe


      They were ALL junk, relatively speaking, but they all had a similar impact. It's just bizarre that Ye olde Commodore versus Spectrum argument still exists even today.

      My ZX81, ZX Spectrums (Spectra?), Acorn Atom, Amstrad PC1512 and Commodore Amigas represent an amazing legacy and it's good that computing history is being preserved like this.

  2. Lord Lien

    Sinclair Research...

    .. made better machines than Commodore back in the day.

    All about Head Over Heels, Back To Skool & Jack The Nipper.

    1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

      Err.. different not better

      I was always more in the 65xx, 68xx camp than the z80 camp (Just didn't like it) but different strokes for different folks. Ah the old 8-bit days....

    2. Hugh McIntyre

      Re: Sinclair Research...

      Maybe, maybe not.

      Anyway, the exhibit has a ZX-Spectrum and ZX-80 as well if that's your preference.

      Although sadly not a BBC Micro.

      1. pisquee

        No BBC Micro?

        Surely ARM and their history should be a feature of this museum. As well as the BBC and eduction side of things. A huge part of the IT history and culture of UK. I would happily donate my BBC B+.

        1. N2


          & theres a few still running in schools now!

        2. Phlip


          As I recall they do have an Acorn Atom, but it's not on display.

          OTOH The National Museum of Computer at Bletchley Park here in the UK has a whole 'classroom' exhibit full of working BBCs, including a Domesday project machine.

        3. Steve Evans

          No Beeb...

          There's a reason for that... The Beebs all still work!

          Well both my two do! Including the one I put into a flight case and turned into a disco light sequencer with a load of triacs... Unlike the earlier poster I didn't blow mine up, although I did trip out the electrics once RCCD's became common, I'd forgotten the triac tabs were connected to the neutral and I'd earthed the heatsink!

          It's funny to see the author writing so lyrically about the computer revolution in '83... It started 3 years earlier in the UK. Back then we had more home computers per capita than any other nation on earth...

          ZX80,81,Spectrum,Orac,Jupiter Ace, Dragon, Acorn Atom, BBC Micro... Fond fond memories.

          How did it all go so wrong?

          Now does anyone want a Tatung Einstein? I seem to have a couple kicking about!

          1. Dave Cradle

            VERY minor correction

            Orac was off of Blakes 7. The micro was Oric. I had an Oric-1. (And a Spectrum. And a BBC B eventually)

          2. Anonymous Coward

            Did you mean....

            Oric...? I still have my Oric 1 and an Atmos knocking around, along with my C64c, disk drives Star LC10 printer and about 6 amigas.

    3. Chemist

      Sinclair Research

      Well I had a Science of Cambridge Mk14 but that was the only Sinclair machine I had. 6809 man for many years with a homebrew Forth system that still runs albeit with a virtual screen/keyboard/disk drive in recent years.

    4. Giles Jones Gold badge


      Define better?

      The Spectrum had the software and much easier more powerful basic, the Spectrum had a faster CPU, the Spectrum had some talented games designers working on games for it. But that's where it ends.

      The Commodore 64 had a better hardware design, a dedicated tape deck and disc drive (official ones, not after market). It had custom video and sound chips with proper sound and inverse video. It had two joystick ports built in.

      The sound chip in the C64 was better than the arcade games of the day. Maybe not in terms of channels and it didn't have proper sample playback (samples could be produced though), but it had proper synthesis with envelopes and filter, not just crude square, and noise waves.

      Spectrum vs C64 all comes down to software. The Spectrum was cheap and so attracted more developers at first, although the C64 caught up.

      What is pretty telling is that the C64 never got massively upgraded through out its life. Sure, Commodore did the C128 and the C64C, but the C128 was never really a replacement for the C64 and the C64C was just a MK2 to reduce production costs.

      The Spectrum was upgraded a few times, Spectrum plus (keyboard upgraded), Spectrum +2 and +3. Sinclair went bust and had to be bought out by Amstrad. Commodore went bust but that was in the 1990s, not the 1980s.

      I've bought numerous Spectrums second hand and the failure rate is massive, only one I've bought actually worked and that crackled a bit. So their hardware design or components are pretty bad.

      Every C64 I've bought has worked, even the ones which have looked a bit battered.

      1. juice Silver badge

        Ah, the Speccy-vs-C64 flame war

        It's good to know some things never change :)

        The key thing about the Spectrum is that it was cheap - far, far cheaper than the C64 (£175 vs £399). It also had a more learner-friendly BASIC and the one-key token system (e.g. press "j" and the word "LOAD" would appear on screen) saved memory, allowing people to write bigger BASIC programs (i.e. the "LOAD" keyword above would only occupy 1 byte, rather than 4) - an important consideration when you've only got a few thousand bytes to play with.

        (Admittedly. new users then had to get their head around the token system before they could start playing with BASIC...)

        However, Sinclair simply weren't geared up to handle the demand and had severe issues with both quantity and quality. Having recently been browsing through some ancient Sinclair User mags (thanks World of Spectrum!), I suspect a major factor was the fact that Sinclair used an outsourcing model: they had a handful of engineers who dreamed up the IP and then contracted with external companies to do the actual manufacturing, with all the issues around quality control and production rates this implies.

        Another problem was that Sinclair generally tried to do things on the cheap - the microdrive being a case in point. It was far, far cheaper than a floppy-disk drive, but it was never particularly reliable - and even then, it took a long time for it to be mass-produced *and* initial production levels were very low: for the first few months, the only way to buy one was if you were on the "early ZX Spectrum adopter" list held by Sinclair, which they worked through in chronological order.

        There's also the infamous story about a manager at TI using a bunch of memory chips as landfill for his drive - they held 16k in two 8k banks, and one of these banks had failed testing. Sir Clive heard about this, negotiated with the manager, dug up his driveway and used the memory chips in his computers, with the non-functional bank disabled...

        (outsourcing issues, production problems, using hardware which has part-failed testing - it all goes around and comes around, doesn't it?)

        However, the biggest problem was that Sinclair simply chewed off too much: Sir Clive wasn't particularly interested in computers other than as a revenue stream (as per Steve Jobs, he had zero interest in gaming) and ploughed lots of money into projects such as portable mini-TVs (the vacuum tubes had a tendancy to explode), electric bikes (the Sinclair C5: nuff said) and a business computer: the QL, which was rushed out and plagued with issues - early models had to have a dongle plugged in to bypass some of the ROM issues! Though it did serve at least one purpose: Linus Torvalds cut his programming teeth on a QL...

        Anyway, it was the cost of these failed ventures which killed the company and led Sinclair to sell it's IP (and name) to Amstrad, where the Spectrum enjoyed a fairly long and respectable lease of life, despite competing with Amstrad's own CPC range of home-computers.

        On the subject of hardware upgrades: there weren't actually that many, as Sinclair was ploughing all of their money into other ventures. There were a few tweaks along the way to fix problems or reduce manufacturing costs (issue 1/2/3, +2A) - and some of these tweaks impacted backwards compatibility - but the main models were:

        1) 16k/48k: released at the same time (and the 16k could be upgraded to 48k)

        2) 48k+: same hardware, new case

        3) 128k+: same case as the 48k+, more memory and a dedicated soundchip

        4) 128k +2: Amstrad's first Spectrum: same as the 128k+ but with an integrated tape deck

        5) 128k +3: Same as the +2, but with an integrated (and proprietary - shoulda learned from the microdrive!) disk drive

        All told, there's essentially just 2 models of hardware - 48k and 128k - and the 128k models only came about because Sinclair's Spanish distributor redesigned the 48k Spectrum to get around a local tax law: Sinclair simply picked their work up afterwards. Meanwhile, on the "mainstream" Commodore side, you had the C64, SX-64, C16, the C plus/4, the C64GS (a "console" which only took cartridges) and the C128, which shoehorned in a Z80 co-processor.

        There's another point in the Spectrum's favour: because it was so cheap and used so few components, it was an ideal subject for cloning and/or home assembly. As a result, there were literally millions of knock-offs produced, especially behind the iron curtain; two popular Russian variants were the Scorpion and Pentagon, which were still being produced long after both the C64 and Spectrum had stopped being commercially viable in the west. All told, it's highly likely that the total number of Spectrum "compatibles" is far, far higher than the total number of C64s...

        1. Jim 59

          cpc464 vs everything else flame war

          It's great that our consumer bias has not abated in over 25 years, and the flames of fanboism still burn as hot as ever.

          Can say the Amstrad cpc464 was home computing nirvana in '84. Unbeatable specs, bundled monitor, and Locomotive basic was the best and fastest out here.

          1. Steve Evans


            Yes, I typo'ed Oric into Orac... The one was a home computer from the 80s, the other a sarcastic perspex box from 80s TV.

            Anyway, how can you guys forget the BBC vs Spectrum arguments. Sir Clive printed some wonderfully biased comparison adverts which had Acorn (manufacturers of the BBC) sent the advertising standards at him on several occasions.

            Personally I thought there was no competition, the Beeb had hardware sound, graphics, I/O ports etc. The Speccy basically tried to do everything in software. A neat trick, but very cheap cheap, and not the sort of thing you can really pull off properly with a <4Mhz CPU!

    5. DJV Silver badge

      @Lord Lien

      Sinclair BASIC was arguably better when compared to the C64 (I have to POKE WHAT to get hi-res graphics?!?!) but reliability-wise they were far inferior. I should know, at the time I was working in an electronics repair shop and the number of dead Spectrums being returned around Christmas 1983 was astounding.

      I also bought a Sinclair Cambridge calculator in the early 1970s (the prebuilt version, not the kit). It lasted less than 2 years before it popped its clogs, however I've still got a Commodore SR-1800 scientific calculator from a year or two later (1975, if memory serves) - I stuck some batteries in it just yesterday (first time in about 5 years) to see if it still worked - it did!

    6. Jedit Silver badge

      One out of three is bad

      Ah, yes, better Spectrum games like Head Over Heels and Jack the Nipper ... both of which were available for the C64 and, if memory serves, were written on the C64 and converted to the Spectrum.


  3. Steve X


    I've been to the museum several times, and will be back in a couple of weeks when I'm in

    the Bay Area again. Highly recommended for all geeks/nerds, as is Bletchley Park

  4. Iain 15


    I guess it feels weird because the pace of change in computing has been so fast when examined in the context of other technological advances. For example, the development of the rifle from musket to Kalashnikov took some 400 years, whereas a similar rate of advance has taken place in computing over a mere century, which is only just outside of a lifetime.

  5. C. P. Cosgrove

    I know how he feels . . .

    I know exactly how Gavin Clarke feels.

    Not long after we were married - 35 years ago - my wife and I found ourselves in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. To my amazement, we went round a corner and I found myself face to face with Mk 1 Scammell Scarab ( a light three-wheeled articulated tractor unit ) . In my surprise, I blurted "I learnt to drive artics on one of them."

    To which my beloved replied "Darling, what's it like to know you learnt to drive on a museum piece ?"

    I don't go back as far on computers as a Commodore 64 though.

    Chris Cosgrove

    1. Admiral Grace Hopper

      Me too :(

      My moment was seeing an ICL 29 Series mainframe being recommisoned as a museum piece at TNMOC. That's the machine that I first got paid to write code for, having cut my teeth on the Research Machines computer at school and the Dragion 32 at home..

      1. Stevie


        Luxury! We *dreamed* of havin' 2900 series computer wi' it's namby-pamby VME.

        We 'ad t' mek do wi' a 1901T runnin' GEORGE II. If y' used too much o' the 16k word memory, bloody thing wud go Illegal X an' throw a wobbly when it tried t' load delete bootstrapper, bangin' on t'lid o' Westrex Console Typewriter wi' print drum an' rattlin' lid somethin' fierce.

        Aye, them were the days an' no mistek!

  6. Nick Kramer

    Plug for Bletchley

    Just a reminder about the National Museum of Computers at Bletchly Park that not only has the first computer I owned (a BBC) but the first calculator (A Sinclair Scientific and, Lord Lien, the build quality was rubbish) a black board slide rule just like we had at school etc etc.

    Pedant bit ,your sub-editor has let you down; for Sir Maurice Wilkes, "Sir Maurice" or "Wilkes" is acceptable but never "Sir Wilkes".

    1. Jim 59

      Home computers at Bletchley

      Another plug for Bletchley, where I experienced something like the author, seeing my old friend the Dragon 32 on display. Mr Gates (or MS) wrote the interpreter for that too, as some readers may recall from the wake up message: "Microsoft Basic Color Interpreter 1.0", copyright 1982.

      The London science museum had a Cray 1 on display recently. I recognized it immediately from a photograph in the 1978 Guinness Book of records, where it was listed as the worlds fastest computer.

    2. Graham Wilson

      @Nick Kramer : OK, but....

      ...Bletchley's a mercury problem to resolve first!


  7. davefb

    the leo

    glad the LEO has got a mention, I loved learning about that back in 'o level computer studies' , how amazingly forward thinking of the company , the fact they were 'a tea room' which felt so 'archaic' but they had grabbed the modern age by not only buying ,but creating computers is such an amazing yet hardly talked about story.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Do you know why the British don't make computers anymore?

    Because they couldn't make them leak oil like their cars.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    VIC-20 saved my life

    Well, maybe a slight exaggeration, but in 1983 Yorkshire, I couldn't get a job. We scraped up the cash for a VIC-20 (couldn't afford a C-64) and I reckon working on that at all hours of the day and night saved me from going stark bonkers.

    Should have said that in t' python voice "we used to dream of commodore-64" "There were 164 of us living in 1byte o' memory in middle o' t' keyboard"

    Still, that silly little Vic-20 gave me what I laughingly call a career in IT.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    the newly refurbished Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California missed a real treat

    regarding the commodore legacy....

    the newly refurbished Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California , or indeed any other progressive Museum around the world really missed a real collective treat recently (scattered to the winds now.), and perhaps a potential bigger loss to the definitive modern electronic world history with all the revisionist tabloid press never giving it any coverage....

    it's such a shame,but such is life, you snooze you loose , and now potentially people will never get to see and perhaps look and inspect first hand at these innovations for the time, and be able to copy their thinking and the mindset behind them when people look back for inspiration and realise we can CANDO that too.

    Dave and

    Carl wont be here forever , then all you have are their web page/old BBS scraped text insights to try and re-create these for the future modern era.

    Cleaned Basement - Original Amiga Prototypes

    Carl Sassenrath, CTO

    REBOL Technologies

    22-Oct-2010 18:29 GMT

    "I cleaned out the basement recently and came across all kinds of original Amiga prototypes, including an original A1000 black box (what I used to develop the Amiga Multitasking kernel, 1984) and original CDTV prototype (what I used to develop the Amiga CD-ROM set-top box, 1990.)

    I should mention that the main reason I was keeping most of this was for prior-art computer HW/SW patent proofs (because Amiga and CDTV were ahead of the curve.) If I were a collector, I'd probably sell on EBay, but who has that kind of time?

    I'm going to pack it all up into my Chevy and take it over the AmiWest tomorrow (Sacramento, CA). I'd be happy to autograph, certify it, date it; you decide. I've kept all this stuff buried for almost 20 years. It's time for someone else to do something with it.

    Some of what's included:

    Original Amiga prototype (With Exec 23.002 ROMS and write-protectable RAM expansion board), but NOT functional because does not have the Amiga chips in it.) Although Dale and RJ have the first running Amiga prototypes with wire-wrapped towers, this box was the first to say "hello world" when I got a very early prototype "Exec" (kernel) to boot on it for the first time in 1984.

    An original Amiga prototype keyboard in a black wooden box (hand made by the hardware team.)

    Some original prototype Amiga chips... that Jay, Dave, Dave, and Glenn worked on, but had a few problems.

    My original CDTV development board (1990) that I used to build and test the CDTV OS, drivers, libs, etc. Although it does not look like much, oddly, this is one of my most valued possessions because it represented a solid year of my life where we had so much fun building CDTV. This card plugged into the side of an A500 and was originally hand built by Don Gilbreath, hardware designer of CDTV.

    Various prototype CDTVs... in various stages of splice and hack.

    Three Amiga CDTVs, brand new in the box. Factory sealed.

    A CDTV/CR ("Cost reduced"). One of very few ever made.

    One CDTV Professional (CD1500) new in the box, and one with a box that's opened. This is a kit containing extra features to enhance your CDTV. Not sure how many were made.

    The original CDTV prototype wireless mouse (the pre-production proof, ~1991.)

    A CDTV wireless trackball/controller. I'm not sure if these were ever sold.

    One CDTV Genlock card (that fits in the video slot). Extremely rare. I don't know if I'm the only one that has one of these or not!

    Several DCTV CDTV Video cards (fits in video slot). This rare card produced higher quality video output for CDTV when encoded using Digital Creations video encoding technique. This (along with CD-XL) was the secret to how we could show full color NTSC motion video running off a CDTV around 1991! I'll never forget the first CD-ROM multimedia show where Intel Corp. was showing NTSC black and white video, and we were running beautiful color.

    An Amiga Spellbound (CD32) hardware prototype system on plywood board. Includes the debug board.

    An AA3000 (A4000) hardware prototype system on plywood board.

    Two of my Amiga 500s, signed for collectors. One of these I used for testing the CDTV OS by plugging in the card above to the side bus.

    A pile of Amiga Guru's Guides #1, Interrupts (the only issue), that I'm willing to autograph.

    A lot of other stuff too, but I've got to figure out what I've got here...


    Very sorry about the late notice... I just decided this morning. Like I said, I'm not much of a collector and I need the space for my ham radio station (KB6ZST).

    I'll be keeping my first Amiga A1000. Now that I cannot part with. What a great computer!

    I've got several boxes of old SigGraphs, SigPlans, and OOPSLA publications (ACM) from the 1980s and 1990s. I left ACM in mid-90's. Not sure what to do with all this stuff.!"

  11. nyelvmark

    Room to expand?

    Given the speed at which bleeding-edge technology can become obsolete junk in this field, I do hope the museum has plenty of room.

    They should probably buy an iPad now.

  12. Russ Williams

    Sir Wilkes?

    That's not how knighthoods work...

  13. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    But the C64 does not deserve its place in the museum,

    Having said that, the basic it had should have been in a museum in 1983

    poke poke poke poke poke peek poke poke peek poke poke peek peek poke all to get the sound chip to emit middle C for 1 second

    Arrghhh no wonder I got a MTX 512 (free cookie for the maker... without looking it up on t' internets)

    1. steward

      What other...

      computer was available, at the time, for the price, that could handle three simultaneous voices for electronic music, with only about 38K available to program with?

      And, of course, programs were available to make things easier. You know, software, that stuff you buy for your computer now to make things easier.

      Commodore died for the same reason that Studebaker died: they didn't see where their market really was, and their marketers dragged the brand down the drain. (This is also the reason Microsoft dominates software: Gates is a geek who's good at marketing and working with marketers.)

    2. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      MTX = Memotech

      As featured in "Weird Science".

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Perhaps you don't understand the word "museum"?

      The C64 is a major player in the history of personal computers for selling ~20 million units alone - regardless of its merits or how it compares to other systems of the day. It's precisely the sort of thing that belongs in the Computer Museum.

  14. Jacob Lipman

    Czech Republic?

    "LEO computers were exported to Australia, South Africa, and the Czech Republic - at the height of the Cold War."

    Er, Czechoslovakia maybe? The Czech Republic sprung into existence on January 1, 1993 - well after the height of the cold war, and the distribution of LEO computers.

    1. Steve Evans


      ... It reappeared.

      But at the time in question during the cold war it would have indeed been Czechoslovakia.

  15. Mike Richards

    ENIAC first????

    Hasn't it been agreed by everyone outside the US that ENIAC was preceded by the all-electronic Colossus (which was also binary - something ENIAC wasn't)? The Zuse machines and the ABC preceded both, but contained mechanical components.

    1. Dave K

      It's an iffy one

      Whilst I do agree to some degree, it's all about the definition. ENIAC was the first "general purpose" electronic computer because it was Turing complete whereas Colossus wasn't. However Colossus was the first fully electronic, programmable computer. So yes, depends how you define it really!

  16. Steve the Cynic

    Pieces of LEO

    Can be found in the house I lived in in the 70s. Both my parents worked for LEO at one time or another - my mother was a programmer before I was born, and my father was a maintenance guy. When some LEO machines were decommissioned around 76/77, the aluminium honeycomb panels from the racks wound up as flooring in our loft.

    Where's the memory lane icon?

  17. Graham Wilson

    My first computer was a Little larger....

    Unfortunately, my first computer was a Little larger--an IBM-360. Luxuries like the Commodore 64 didn't come until about 1 1/2 to 2 decades later.

    ...But the IBM-360 was hackable! In those days computer departments simply threw the used fan-fold paper printouts into the dump truck at the rear of the computing department. Enterprising nerds like yours truly used the printouts to get $-job info to hack with (back then the words 'hacker' and 'nerd' were still to be coined).

    Hacking was never malicious--that thought never even crossed our minds. It's only purpose was to give us access to extra machine resources, time etc., and for quite a while it was very successful until, as always, some greedy f-wit stuffed it up by going to extremes: operators saw Hollerith card batches doing strange things!


  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even I've heard of LEO

    And I'm no historian. I thought it was very famous indeed in computing lore.

    I didn't know that they tea shop company then sold its computers to other big businesses.

  19. Toastan Buttar
    Thumb Down

    Hyperbole much?

    "the tower helped establish Google as a search colossus whose thumb is now on the throat of the web and society"

  20. heyrick Silver badge

    London science museum gets it right

    They have an Acorn proudly displayed. Not only innovative (certainly the Beeb's capabilities), but for the early '80s, one of the best versions of BASIC around, certainly showed up the competition, plus built in assembler so none of this peek/poke rubbish.

    I am writing this on an ARM powered mobile phone, as an ARM powered video recorder is doing it's thing. There's an ARM in my printer... All Acorn heritage. Any tech museum that omits this vital part of computer history is sadly lacking.

  21. DN4

    At the height of the Cold War... Czech Republic existed yet so LEO II could hardly be exported there.

  22. John Sanders

    I demand a mention...

    To the Amiga 1000!!!

  23. J. R. Hartley

    lest we forget...

    The Amiga, which if not destroyed by management, we would all be using today.

    1. Aggellos

      They all walked the plank and not in a quantum way

      The amiga , atari st and all it's counter parts amstrad, commadore and even the early apple where all killed by piracy not bad management, our local street market use to have pirate software for sale openly from multipul vendors sometimes months before official release dates and not just games.

      Even EMF who used the atari st because of its better midi port admitted to using less than legal music apps, so if even the people who could afford it where not buying the game was a bogey sadly no matter how bad board room decisions where.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        If software piracy can sink a hardware platform, how come there are still so many of those things that trace their history back to the IBM PC still around?

  24. Melanie Winiger

    Excellent article

    Great article - I find programmers generally don't make good historians - they're too busy working on the "Next Big Thing". So it's nice to see a bit of history well recorded.

    This was a classic:

    "IBM staked its future on the IBM/360 – in today's dollars the project would cost $80bn."

    The bean-counters would never allow that today - unless it was offshored to Cambodian prisoners working for 1 USD per day .-)

  25. Aggellos

    Shiver me timber's for a phreak like Woz

    Ah Woz I remember ( yes i am old and can remember things before yesterday) when the BBS was shitz and interthingy was just a little sperm and egg and things like fido net where the place to be and a hacker just meant somone who hacked away at the keyboard to make the machine do what you wanted it to do well sometimes anyway.

    Woz sold blueboxes back then and not fruit he was also a phreak of the highest caliber and a member of group who shall we say liked eye patches...odd how apple developed though considering Woz's background.

    Bet that is not on his C.V.

  26. Naughtyhorse


    love the long winded hoops they jump through to make ENIAC *sound* like the first computer


    1. Daniel B.


      Yes, I've mentioned Colossus a couple of times after learning from it thanks to me studying about the history of Crypto. That and the parallel discovery of the asymmetric key by both the RSA/DHM teams and the GCHQ dudes are quite the story; the British inventions aren't well known because, well, they were military stuff and thus were shrouded behind secrecy.

      However, I would expect for a Computing Museum to add these references once they went public!

  27. Jonathon Green

    American ingenuity...

    Ingenious these Americans.

    Lyons/Leo have a purpose built computer running routine office jobs in the early '50s and have a dozen of them installed by 1961 ( and yet IBM still managed to sell "...the first general-purpose computer for businesses..." in 1964.

    Neat trick that... :-)

  28. Keris

    2000 years?

    Only about 60 years represented out of the claimed 2000 years, what happened to the rest of the last two millennia? Even two hundred years includes Babbage.

    (Ah, of course, this is in America where 100 years is ancient history...)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      2000 years?

      The only thing I can think is that they must have been thinking of the Jesus Phone.

      *serious* computing history question: how old is the abacus?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Babylon circa 2400 BCE

        the abacus was thought to have been invented in Babylon circa 2400 BCE.

        Difference engine:

        J. H. Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army conceived the idea in a book published in 1786, but failed to find funding to progress this further

        Babbage's first attempt at a mechanical computing device In 1822 was the difference engine, a special-purpose calculator designed to tabulate logarithms and trigonometric functions by evaluating finite differences to create approximating polynomials. During this project he realized that a much more general design was possible and started work designing the analytical engine.

        In 1822, Charles Babbage proposed the use of such a machine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society on 14 June entitled "Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables

        Based on Babbage's original plans, the London Science Museum constructed a working Difference Engine No. 2 from 1989 to 1991"

        "The analytical engine, an important step in the history of computers, was the design of a mechanical general-purpose computer by English mathematician Charles Babbage. First described in 1837, in its logical design the machine was essentially modern, anticipating the first completed general-purpose computers by about 100 years. "

        "In 1910, Babbage's son Henry Prevost Babbage reported that a part of the mill and the printing apparatus had been constructed and had been used to calculate a (faulty) list of multiples of pi. This constituted only a small part of the whole engine; it was not programmable and had no storage. (Popular images of this section have sometimes been mislabelled, implying that it was the entire mill or even the entire engine.) Henry Babbage's "Analytical Engine Mill" is on display at the Science Museum in London"

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          the abacus was thought to have been invented in Babylon circa 2400 BCE.

          the abacus was thought to have been invented in Babylon circa 2400 BCE.

          ohh and all YOU dudes, YES I MEAN YOU ,reading this old El Reg real computer history archive in 2400 AD , Remember this.....

          the AMIGA was Far better than the Atari ST , we Know ,we actually used them, so you were right and the other dude feeding you FUD is wrong :P

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Commodore PC 20-III

      First PC I purchased - an upgrade from the model a friend had - mine had 1 floppy disc drive and a 20 MB hard drive. While learning to drive DOS a few hours after first power-up, I managed to delete the autoexec.bat file, thus beginning a love-hate relationship that I have mainly enjoyed ever since. Oh, and the monitor had the classy amber screen font rather than the run-of-the-mill green.

  29. Mark .

    Re: Better

    Giles Jones: "The Commodore 64 had a better hardware design, a dedicated tape deck and disc drive (official ones, not after market). "

    Note that you could get Spectrums with built in tape drive, and disk drive (as you note, there were several Spectrum models, so it's unfair to just compare to one).

    J. R. Hartley: "The Amiga, which if not destroyed by management, we would all be using today."

    In a way, we are. Modern computers, with their GUIs, multitasking, dedicated chips for graphics and sound, feel closer to my old Amigas than they do to 286 DOS PCs, or the "classic" Macs.

    The hardware is different and a derivative of x86, but then the hardware of modern "Macs" has nothing in common with the original, and the same would likely be true for the Amiga if Commodore hadn't gone bust. If Apple can put a sticker on a modern PC and call it a "Mac", you might as well do the same with an Amiga sticker...

    Aggellos: "The amiga , atari st and all it's counter parts amstrad, commadore and even the early apple where all killed by piracy not bad management"

    Because there's not an piracy on PCs (or Apple)? You don't think that Commodore going bust had a slight impediment on the sales of Amigas?

    1. Aggellos

      the amiga was dead before commodore ( in fact it killed it ).

      piracy was a different game back then and cant be compared tto the current market in anyway the problem was not the usual crowd, everyone ran dicky software even large comopanies I.T was a dark art then and copy protection was ethier nonexsistent or extremely simple.

      Companies nowdays still make bad desiscions but have the soft cushion of "funds" , i mean Apple also nearly went to the wall lest you forget and i bet your not going to says jobsie or woz are bad management .

      And MS near bluner with dos remember the DOS ENG carry on, but the silly folks at IBM saved bIlls neck. Even when the WWW kicked off MS were sleeping netscape showed that.

      and it was 94 we are talking before CBM went under and so did the rest though apple just survived IBM had finished of what piracy had brought to its knees and the sutpid A600 design was at market so it killed itself in a sad way, gamers went console and geeks went PC.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Down

        you dont know your history Aggellos

        Aggellos, you dont seem to know your amiga, original commodore executive management history very well, if its one thing the original Amiga fan's the world over know, it's the real history, step by step and even court documents they uncovered (no other base can say they did the court docs route to unearth the facts) , and they have accounts by the real hardcore hw and sw developers themselves as it happened if you care to ask for the transcripts and clarifications.

        1. Aggellos

          late reply

          Eh i would beg to differ mr coward, the market has to be taken as a whole and I bet i owned more amiga label units than you did, the aga chipset for instance although head and shoulders above what ibm offered was extremely costly to manufacture and new models like A600 where a step back.

          IBM killed off all the other manufactures and nearly even killed apple,I am sorry if Fanboys can't face the fact that Amiga brand was doomed blaming CBM management or tramiel depending on which side of the fence your sitting is pointless both just like amstrad , apple and the rest failed to Understand the Impact IBM PC would have on the market.

          The Atari v Commadore again is mute both where to busy wrangling and worring about each other to see they like others had failed to see how the market was developing. the Amiga 1000( most agree was the high point) although years ahead of it's rivals like the A range was extremely costly to manufacture leaving tiny profit margins the busines model was unsound before any court room saga's.

  30. Charles Calthrop
    Thumb Up

    you've probably had loads of comments like this already...but that's an awesome, awesom artcile

    Fantastic reading, I had head about Lyons but not the scope of the thing. I wish Britain had something like this, but if we had $19m I spose we ought to spend it on research given that looking back at past glories has probably stunted our innovation a bit too much

    Anyway, thanks for an absolutely lovely article. Brilliant

  31. doperative

    who wrote Basic

    > Among the donors to Revolution is Bill Gates, who also provided the establishing gift: the BASIC interpreter tape he wrote for the MITS Altair 8800 while at Harvard in 1975, and that led to Microsoft and Windows.

    I thought it was based on Decus BASIC a copy of the source code Bill obtained from the DECUS, the DEC User Society?

  32. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    days of yore

    first for me was a Radio Shack TRS-80 model I, circa 1979. Missed the whole Commodore period and went straight to PCs. When I replaced the second floppy drive with my first hard drive, I remember thinking, "Five MEGAbytes?!? How the heck could I ever need THAT much space?"

    Years later when I landed my first "big time" admin job for a chemical company, one of my was to manage a DEC VAX for our R&D folks. We even had an IBM System 36 acting as a front end and print server for a mainframe at corporate HQ. When I think about the TONNES of paper I put through the three chain printers fed by that System 36, I thank [Deity, Mother Nature, FSM, Cosmic Random Chance] that pine trees are so rapidly renewable...

    Nerd because, even though I'm no longer in IT, "once a nerd, always a nerd". A badge I wear proudly.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      big iron and the cloud

      well look at it this way Ugotta, you get to see that old big iron and thin clients come back around again in the name of so called cloud computing...

      so at that rate we should be seeing the new innovation age that was the BBC,C64,Amiga,Transputer (lets not forget that Uk innovation ether),ARM etc in another 10 or 15 years, looking forward to it .

  33. marschw

    Went there yesterday

    I went to the exhibit yesterday, and it was pretty good. The most striking point for me was how many huge bundles of hand-done wiring were in a lot of the old systems. It seems failure-prone and virtually impossible to debug.

    For example, the computer-guidance system of an early guided missile was on display, and it had great swathes of (perhaps 24ga) wire connected to what looked like punch-down blocks, of all things. There was a brown goop spread across the top of the punch-downs which would prevent the wire from coming all the way out, but would do nothing to prevent a punch from getting loose. And in an embedded system that's supposed to fly through the air, strapped to a rocket?? Something tells me vibration would be a major issue.

    They also had a CPU module from the CRAY-3, which was a handsome piece of metalwork, with a similar abomination of loose wire sagging all over the place.

    Seeing the pieces in person really helps you notice interesting little details. For instance, the SAGE missile defense systems had built-in cigarette lighters and ashtrays, presumably because the people tasked with worrying all day about Soviet ICBM attacks did a lot of smoking.

    Unfortunately, the exhibit had a substantial emphasis on mechanical calculation devices, and early mechanical computers (abacuses to IBM punch card sorters, for example). Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not what I'm particularly interested in.

    The section on video game consoles was particularly disappointing. There were some interesting early artifacts (e.g. a development prototype of the Atari VCS), but the things on display from about 1980 onward seemed like they had been selected more or less randomly. Does a copy of "Ready 2 Rumble Boxing" really belong in a museum, as one of the four game cases on display to represent the first PlayStation?

    All in all, there seemed to be no concern about the significance or lessons to be learned from the consoles that they had on display. They had a TurboGrafx-16, but not the much more historically significant PC-Engine CD. They had no 3DO, no CD-I, no Virtual Boy, etc., etc., but they did have a gold-colored Bandai Pippin (why?). And the text alongside the exhibits in this section didn't do a good job of explaining the significance of what they did have on display.

    The section on supercomputers and business workstations looked promising (e.g. they had the physical teapot that was used for all sorts of 3d demos), but the museum closed at 5, and I had run out of time.

    I couldn't figure out the lobby tiles. They're not on a grid, so it seemed like a tape measure would be necessary to figure out how many bits and blanks there were in any given spot. And what do you do when the data is covered by one of the kiosks?

  34. Mike 16 Silver badge

    2000 years?

    There are (reproductions of) counting tables (pre-abacus) and a display on the Antikythera Mechanism (150..100 BCE), so, "more than 2000 years".

    And Babbage is represented by Difference engine #2, Serial 2, in the lobby.

  35. Nick L

    Information Revolution...

    Perhaps every generation thinks they're living in the most important one - in fact it would be odd if any generation didn't - but I feel hugely fortunate to have had my formative years aligned with the home computer revolution.

    The appeal of the 64 - or in fact any of the machines mentioned above - was that they positively encouraged you to tinker. Sure, you can play games... Or you could try entering that program in the magazine or book to see what it does. And then ask yourself why does 'poke 53280,0' turn the screen black anyhow? Then find out... And carry on digging...

    And, before you know it, you've got to the very basics of what computers do and how they work.

    Anyone who had an Amiga in the 80s had Deluxe Paint with it, and will have tinkered. A sizeable proportion might have used SoundTracker or similar to mess around with sound... Computers were tools to create and consume (games), but I was more interested in creating and I suspect a majority were, too. That seems to have shifted massively in the last decade. I heard that the games industry is now bigger than hollywood in terms of revenue...

    I have 2 sons, and they're showing an interest in this stuff. What's more surprising is that they are both intrigued by the old stuff that I hoard, restore, and tinker with. Perhaps it's more accessible because it is simpler, I dont know... Perhaps my kids will, in 30 years time, be reminiscing about the Wii, custom IOSs, boot2 and whatever :).

    For anyone with similar nostalgia pangs, I recommend Commodore: A company on the edge by Brian Bagnall, now 2nd edition. Throws any historical revisionism by certain companies into sharp relief, and does illuminate how small the teams behind the 64 and Amiga were! After reading that, I defy anyone not to have a deep admiration for the characters, particularly Chuck Peddle.

    (full disclosure: I have, stacked next to me, an Amiga 1000, 3000, 4000 and a Commodore 128D that all work and get regular use. I need to get out more, I know)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Mick Tinker and his InsideOut - Amiga on a PCI card would be good today

      we sure could do with Mick Tinker making his InsideOut - Amiga on a PCI card today OC or better yet updated for the ARM mobile PCB generation .

  36. GuyC

    Not on the Top Shelf

    Remember when you could go into WH smiths and buy a book, called "peek, poke, byte and RAM" without being over 18

  37. Graham Bartlett

    What Bletchley Park should be, for a fraction of what's spent on "art"

    Bletchley Park won WW2 for the Allies (yes, including the Americans). It has immeasurable historical value, and is irreplaceable. The code-breaking computers are also vital for computer history. And Bletchley Park also houses the UK's National Museum of Computing.

    They got £250k from the government in 2009 because the roof was literally falling off. Apart from that, they're constantly on the edge.

    It's a bit galling that an American museum is buying British industrial heritage. Not particularly because they're American, but bcos no-one apparently cares enough in Britain to fund anything similar. Most British museums apparently think that history stopped at about 1920.

  38. Dinky Carter

    The 64 reigned supreme

    The 64 blew its comtemporaries away hardware wise. Hardware sprites, fantastic sound, bags of memory. Its only realistic rival was the 32k Beeb. The 64 was a techies' machine. Learn some 6502(10) and the audio and video chips submitted themselves to your every whim, as games producers were quick to find out. It's not surprising it remains the best selling personal computer of all time.

    As for LEO... my old man coded parts of the kernel on that beast, and then got it to do Ford of Dagenham's payroll in 2Kb. Great to see its story being told.

  39. robb

    Atari 800?

    I had many 8bit systems over the years, including a couple of Atari 800 variants, and they competed pretty well with the C64. In fact the Amiga was the decendant of the Atari 800, both being designed by Jay Miner (and you could kinda tell, IMO, if you knew the innards of the graphics hardware on both).

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022