PART 1: FROM EARLY HOBBYIST TYPE BEGINNINGS TO THE HOME COMPUTER ENTERING BRITISH MAINSTREAM HOUSEHOLDS.
If we were are refer to the early 1980s as the Home Computer boom, then it can be said that this heralded the dawn of digital age. The United Kingdom pioneered this new technology and the birth of the home computer brought to the forefront questions from business and commerce through to mass market appeal, a product of limitless potential perhaps, a product that could enhance our everyday lives. It was the invention of the microprocessor that changed everything, when silicon became available affordable, we then saw potential in what could be achieved, CPUs such as the Zilog Z80 and MOS Technology 6502 brought to the mainstream and used in home computers.
What changed in the 1980s on the whole, was consumer perception a cultural recognition that computers were here to stay bringing burning questions how we approached and adopted this new technology. British business had a dilemma in requiring computers to keep their companies productive , profitable and competitive in the new digital age. Training of staff , removing traditional practices in favour of new working environments which would lead to reductions in workforce numbers the dawn of the computer age brought more questions for business rather than answers with initial costs of investment and value for money against a perceived increase in productivity and sustaining their competitive edge
If we look back to the previous decade, then the 1970s introduced a hobbyist culture of kit based personal computers, and although desirable to the hardcore electronics buffs, it was still something that was more on the fringes of society, used by the amateur radio hobbyists which as yet was not perceived as an essential product that was going to appeal to the every day working man or woman and maybe not something he or she would be too keen on buying his children for Xmas.
This era saw a culture of home brew type computer clubs, perhaps the members were often referred to by onlookers as hobbyists and rightly so, like we find with many new and interesting products, it’s historically seen the eccentrics ,geeks etc adopt this technology early on, before someone then decides to bring a product of a certain practicality that can appeal to mainstream society. In 1979, the computer hobbyist market started to flourish and it’s estimated that at least 500 people in that year would build their own computers with the Nascom range popular in the UK
Before the 1970s, we saw computers as large data crunching machines, often owned by big corporations and often just a single machine. At this point in time, an average member of mainstream society has probably never seen a computer unless they’d watched a science fiction film, the very concept of having a computer in the home as a practically sized device would have been completely incomprehensible. Although we did see mixed attitudes towards computing culture emerge from the counterculture generation.
The Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) is a line of home/personal computers produced starting in 1977 by Commodore International.
On one hand we saw many seeing the computer as a threat to mankind, a kind of device that could be used by big corporations to control the population, yet many on the other hand saw positive visions of a digital utopian future, where he/she could use the computer in the home as a device for self-development, information at their fingertips, essentially what this generation was seeing in the late 1960s was essentially a personal computer connected to the internet, years before the technology became available. Many of these visionaries came from the free thinking community and readers of The Whole Earth Catalogue – a radical magazine which encouraged new ideas and advances in society.
The concept of plugging a potable computer into a regular TV set was certainly an attractive and realistic prospect that opened the doors to a new generation of home computer users. It wasn’t just the product of the Sinclair ZX80, but rather the blueprint that was set the future path for home computing here in the UK. The ZX80 was the first affordable mass produced home computer, to bring us a usable and practical real life solution that could be enjoyed in the comfort of your own homes with Acorn computers following the same year with their Acorn Atom a computer which was superior than the Sinclair offering and available as kit form or ready built.
In 1980, Sir Clive Sinclair launched the ZX80 to the general public, an attractive, compact and futuristic looking device for under £100 and was the first affordable mass produced home computer
Following the release of the ZX80, we then saw many personal computers released by British companies and at the peak of the home computing boom in 1983-84, the market reached a point where there were new machines being released on almost monthly basis and although commercial success of each machine varied, the future was bright and the future was 8-bit and the home computer market was a symbol of British inventiveness. There was for sure something quintessentially British about this era, from the pioneering inventors themselves that had the vision to bring low cost home computers into the every day household, making it a product that was accessible for everyone. For many children, using these machines was a time of experimentation.
As we start to see children enjoying the release of these new, promising and futuristic machines, then they were the first of a generation to really get to grips with this new technology. Learning to program these machines was a fascinating time, it was a new concept to have a portable, programmable device in the home that could be programmed to create some magic on the screen, essentially only limited by ones imagination. It cannot be underestimated that having the power to control a television set and determine its display by inputting data for example was a powerful moment. Instead of passively watching content the television combined with the computer gave the user the opportunity to create , experiment and enjoy this new found era of exploration and innovation.
Released from 1980 until 1982. The Atom was a home computer from Acorn Computers LTD. It was essentially a progression of the MOS-6502 based machines that the company had been producing from 1979
If we could take reference to the Sinclair ZX81 release of the game 3D Monster Maze (1982) then we could now see that there was some potential here in what could be done and although the ZX80 initially set a blueprint, then the ZX81 was the machine that refined things further and the first computer to be sold in high street stores. The machine was a commercial success and sold over 1.5 million units in total. When you look at the landscape of 1981, then there wasn’t a great deal of games available to purchase and the ones available via type in listings for example allowed fledgling bedroom coders to modify and ultimately to write their own games.
The home computing media publications market started with a handful of magazines released for either a particular make and model of computer. After all, the UK was keen to adopt this new technology and embrace the new liberal art of coding, it was essentially the children of the UK that created the multi billion pound games industry that we have today. As more computers became available on the market, then so did supporting hard copy publications.
Throughout the 1980s, the BBC Micro inspired a generation of kids throughout the UK and it was BBC Basic that probably got them hooked in the first place. It was the staple diet of the National Curriculum.
Often magazines would have code listings inside them, the reader would buy the magazine, type in the listings and and they would get the game as a bonus, but perhaps in the early days maybe the games listings supplied gave the children that bought the magazines and typed in these listings, we also saw children starting to experiment with code and develop until we perhaps reached a point where the self taught children were now more articulate with coding then what the those who published the early, original listings provided in the magazines. If you were to ask many video game industry legends or pioneers from this era, then many will tell you that they started from typing in such listings from computer magazine publications.
With this movement we started to see a wave of emerging wonder whizz kids that had the ability to design and write quality games, so we can now see a clear progression in what was emerging here. Initially starting off as a mail order cottage industry.
Many of these children were initially inspired by the arcades of the late 1970s
The late 70s/early 80s, it would be fair to say was partly responsible for the home computer games that the children created in the early 1980s, they saw something that inspired them in the arcades and wanted to replicate something similar on their computers at home, the home computer games market initially was absent when these machines first came on the scene, apart from magazine listings and handful of games that perhaps could have been better or more creative, there was a gap in this market and bedroom coders took this concept and ran with it.
We’d seen something similar happening with the likes of the Atari and Colevision in regards to replication of arcade type gaming experiences, but the games for these systems were produced by big corporations and a handful of independent software houses (namely Activision), the home computer naturally gave opportunity for children to start getting creative with these machines and start writing games.
COMING SOON: HOW BRITAIN ADOPTED THE HOME COMPUTER OF THE 1980s – PART 2: FROM THE BEDROOM CODERS TO THE GAMES INDUSTRY