The NewBrain was launched 30 years ago this month, but its arrival, in July 1982, was a long time coming. The genesis of the computer that might have been the BBC Micro - that might, even, have been Sinclair's first home computer - goes back more than four years to 1978. The company that became known as Sinclair Radionics was …
Thanks for that
Just checked my Mk14 and its still working!! Dusty though...
Ah, memory lane...
Sold a fair few of these at the time (mainly the AD). Nice box, fast for the time and graphics (mono) were impressive too; in a lot of cases, that's what sold the thing. Worked for a while with a bunch of guys looking to use it as the heart of an in-car system aimed at execs, but the demise of GBS put the kybosh on that. Couple of things that hurt:
- Lack of supply on time (see article); I remember driving to pick up a batch at the last possible moment for a show
- Those bloody weird proprietary connectors they used. Couldn't get 'em 3rd party anywhere and GBS were even worse at supplying cables than machines.
Lots of juicy insider info here...
Sounds like GBS didn't really know how to develop, sell or support the NewBrain. But then it was the early days of microcomputers...
Re: Further reading...
>Sounds like GBS didn't really know how to develop, sell or support the NewBrain. But then it was the early days of microcomputers..
Yeah. These days you don't have to suffer shoddy support, release dates slipping or broken promises. Manufacturers have learnt so much over the years.
Re: Further reading...
Indeed, these days companies such as HP lead the way in providing excellent customer service and support.
<goes off muttering about how the idiots at HP won't even sell you an external notebook power supply unless you give them the serial number of your notebook first>
Given the described history of UK then Holland, I'm curious where the model on Page 1 was destined. It seems to have a French AZERTY keyboard.
Speaking of keyboards, I think people sometimes underestimate the effect they had. I know that for many of my friends one of the major deciding factors for going the BBC Micro route was that it had a "proper" keyboard, not a chiclet-style one.
And ironically, with today's tablet computers, you're supposed to pretend that a pane of glass is a keyboard... even the Microsoft Surface keyboard looks suspiciously like a ZX80!
>even the Microsoft Surface keyboard looks suspiciously like a ZX80!
..and might not even be as useful :)
All the microcomputer manufacturers at the time were trying to find a USP that would either put them in a comfortable niche or drive big sales because it solved some issue that was preventing huge adoption.
As a result, you would see machines with all sorts of strange features like continental keyboard layouts or odd built-in language choices (e.g. the Jupiter Ace had a Forth compiler).
The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A had a keyboard that used the same keys they put on their calculators, which were fine on calculators, but made typing a very difficult task. You could always spot a colleague who had owned one of these machines as they would hammer the keys of any other machine in the same way - often completely destroying them in a matter of months.
Reminds me of Bournemouth
Here's a worthwhile link if you've got ten minutes to spare on this classic supercomputer:
My recollection of Sinclair in the pre-micro era is that it supplied matchbox radios and cheap but unreliable amplifiers through small ads in Practical Wireless. How odd to learn that the Labour government of the time regarded this as a key industry and therefore a target for nationalisation.
Imagine if it had all worked out as planned, and Britain had a nationalised microcomputer industry! We'd probably still be using hex keypads like the one shown in the article.
Picture - bottom of Page 3
What's in the big box behind the computer that the monitor is standing on?
Re: Picture - bottom of Page 3
On Page 4 - "Promoted peripherals, such as floppy and hard drive controllers, expansion modules and a special multi-module housing, launched much later than announced, if they arrived at all."
I expect box in the picture is the 'special multi-module housing'
Re: Picture - bottom of Page 3
It really did come too late. The MOS KIM-1 was a similar proposition, okay the New Brain has fully qwerty and looks more finished. But the KIM-1 arrived 6 years earlier and that was a long time back then.
Pricey back then..
The ZX81 was only £50 when my dad bought me one, and the Spectrum £130 (sold the '81 for £40, added pocket money, and parental contribution). The £200+ jobbies were way out of our league, used to see ads of it thinking, wow, a proper-ish keys AND an LCD, cool! I hated the BBC Micro, because if was just so expensive at £400, had great graphics and sound, and I never did own one, ever. Oh and the only chap in the class who had one was held up as being the only one with a 'professional' dad. Enough envy there to turn one a very deep shade of green indeed!
Fascinating article though, but the idea of trying to load 256kb off tape! Rough guess, a 3k bit per sec baud turbo loader could manage it in about half an hour. Did disk drives ever come out for the New Brain?
MK14 - not what it seemed
If memory serves the MK14 was actually two development boards from NatSemi which were bolted together to make a complete system! I think the design credit rests with NatSemi rather than any part of the Sinclair/Science in Cambridge groups.
And, at the launch of the NewBrain David Tebbutt and I, then the editor of Computnig Toady, had a 'wait it out' session to see who would get hands on the demo model first. My bladder gave out before his, he nabbed the box and later rang me to confess that the box was actually just a keyboard and display - all the processing had been done 'under the table' by a different computer altogether!
Now, those were the days!
ouch, that price!
Back then, £200+ was out of my families league - or at least, more than my Dad was prepared to pay.
Alas, we were fated to wait and wait and wait for our ZX81 delivery - I recall it was delayed by 8 weeks due to, well, all sorts of excuses, which all equated to "we can't build them fast enough"
I vaguely recall the newbrain - I must've seen it advertised in a computer mag, or possibly it was in Tandy's (Radioshack for US folks) - it certainly looked a whole lot better than a ZX80 or ZX81 !
The BBC produced a similar programme, The Silicon Factor, later that year.
I think I have seen that, a rerun on Granada Men and Motors - It didn't look like the sort of programme the beeb would make though, what with all those lovely ladies running around on an army assault course in skimpy clothing and then doing IQ test puzzles (badly) - are you sure it wasn't an ITV show?
Re: The BBC produced a similar programme, The Silicon Factor, later that year.
The BBC series were, The Computer Programme, then Making the Most of the Micro, Micro Live (a two hour live, live special) and then a whole bunch more under different producers/directors.
Really good article series...
... just wondering what will be next!
Re: Really good article series...
Oooh! oooh! —Do one on the Oric. It never gets a nostalgic mention.
Re: Really good article series...
Or do one on the Vextrex games console!
I had one, I think it's still in the attic, and the addon box that I think added a disk controller, though I can't really remember. Biggest problem was that it was all 7400 series discrete logic crammed very tightly into the boxes, and used to get VERY hot, to the point where errors would start occurring.
Promise and potential but management handicapped
Basil Smith and Mike Wakefield joined the project after the design was well underway; something I didn't realise until many years later.
The design for the BBC micro was the Newbury NewBrain. The change in software and hardware, particularly adding colour was the result of Acorn actively bidding for the contract. Newbury did not supporting the bidding for the contract and Acorn at least had a working and commercial computer in the Atom. Newbury, then Grundy Business Systems, had only the battery powered Vestic machine with built in ROMS. Management did not want to supply the BBC micro and didn't try to get the contract.
The battery power machine relied upon CMOS components and was never made. The battery module for the Model AD would run for about an hour. Some owners replaced as many of the components, in the AD, as they could and achieved longer battery life.
In 1982 there were plans for modular cases to house the modules and expansion boards. This wasn't happening so the tower shown was made as a stop gap. As even these didn't appear in numbers loans of machines to software companies where supplied with an 'oil rig' tower to support the monitor with floppy disc controller and 96K expansion module in slim brown cases held together by locking keys. The brick at the back was the multiple power supply for four modules (the computer/keyboard module being one of them). This was so over engineered that it would also run a pair of 3.5" floppy drives (in house custom alteration).
Disc controllers and expansion modules were sold in limited numbers. All the components for a production run where supplied but there were hold ups in soldiering the boards. Tradecom battled to get these as the contractor hadn't been paid, but had been making a little return selling completed but untested disc controllers. The same contractor also was sitting on components to built NewBrains - which Tradecom then got completed. Existing customers wanted the expansion boards. New customers were waiting for the arrive of the long promised expansions. It would have cost very little to have turned the stock of components into machine for the Christmas market.
The plug was pulled in August 1983, but heralded the collapse of the other microcomputer companies in in 82/83 leaving Acorn, Sinclair and the late to market Amstrad as games machines with business having moved to the IBM PC.
There were many comments in the press and from people who didn't own a NewBrain about the keyboard. The keys have a full bounce and metal springs mounted on a metal plate. The spacing is exactly the same as on professional typewriters but the keys are straight, not tapered as used on most keyboards at the time. The small return key and short space bar where the only compromise for lack of space. There were many discussions about replacing the caps with ones that filled up the gap between keys so they looked 'proper'.
Cambridge based development gave overoptimistic delivery dates for modules but Teddington marketing gave unrealistic dates. At least they didn't stock pile customer's money months in advance.
My first sale on eBay!
I acquired one of these years ago while working for a then computer journalist. It sat in various boxes and lofts until I decided to use it as a guinea pig for my first ebay sale. I sold it as not working but still got £92 for it which pleased me greatly. The buyer claimed he had mis-keyed the amount but then paid in full???? He told me had got it working a day or so later by replacing dried out caps in the PSU.
I still have my Newbrain, not that I ever used it except for the PCW review. It had the most unfriendly operating system ever invented (perhaps the 1960s Russian space program may have had something to compete). All I/O was redirectable, which meant that just to type "Hello World!" you first had to open a stream to the display :-(~
How much did 2MB RAM cost in 1982? I remember having to buy an additional 4MB RAM for a '386 back in '93. There was a RAM shortage so it cost (my dad) a small fortune then.
<== Windows 3.1 was a joke on 4MB RAM
Two MEGAbytes? The Commodore 64, released in 1982 had 64 Kilobytes of RAM. The ZX Spectrum, also released in 1982 came in 16K and 48K varieties. Words like mega wheren't even in the vocabulary then.
2MB would put you in the university computer class in 1982.
I spent £100 to upgrade my home computer from 32kb to 64kb in 1982 if that's any help.
I also remember when I populated a memory expansion board for my 386 with one MB in 1990, and was so pleased the chips cost less than £100 I rang someone up to tell them how clever I was at finding bargains
the future!!!! (according to the NIB)
It's a tablet - foreunner! you can see it....can't you? squint a little. (just in reverse, with big keyboard and small screen)
Re: the future!!!! (according to the NIB)
Don't tell Apple it has rounded corners!
Not so fast
One of my friends bought a Newbrain, and I recall that it wasn't really that fast, at least not when it came to graphics. One reason may be that it used real numbers as coordinates rather than integers and allowed arbitrary scaling factors for the coordinates (so you could, for example, define your screen as going from -pi to pi horisontally and from 0 to 1e20 vertically). It did have some (for the time) advanced graphics primitives, including a flood fill (which worked in a way that gave associations to Tron lightcycles).
The keyboard, in spite of its odd look, was actually quite good, as I recall it.
In any case, after I bought a BBC B, my friend sold his Newbrain and bought a BBC too. I dont' think he ever regretted that decision.
The real hero
The Z80, the CPU that could.