If you’re a British techie of a certain age, there’s only one microcomputer that defines your first memories of computing at school. No, not Acorn’s BBC Micro – the Research Machines 380Z. While Acorn was still knocking up the Proton, the machine being designed as the successor to the Atom, and while the BBC was pondering how it …
Ahhh, the nostolgia.
I too experienced the 380Z in 1982, my first year of comprehensive secondary school.
Before that, I had cut my teeth on Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum. It was really quite unimpressive to me at that young age, but did feel like a "real computer" and the 5 /14" disks were a bit of a novelty at the time.
I remember rewriting some BASIC that had been put to the class as an example, to perform the same function in about half the code. My Computer Studies teacher used to thoroughly detest me.
It was nothing personal Mr. Archer, you should have stuck to just being Head of Maths (or swallow your pride) and there wouldn't have been a problem. ;-)
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
Indeed my first job (at Leicester Uni Computer Studies Unit) involved teaching programming (Basic or Pascal, I can't remember!) on a network of 480z's driven by a 380z. The server had two 8" floppy drives which provided the OS (CP/M?), Editor etc,, and the other disk stored the students efforts.
One day we dusted the bank for a "Winchester" Hard drive - I think about 5 Mb!
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
"I remember rewriting some BASIC that had been put to the class as an example, to perform the same function in about half the code. My Computer Studies teacher used to thoroughly detest me."
Reminds me of a YTS course I was on in the mid-1980s. We students were in the programming class, and I had finished my task. A girl was having problems and the instructor was looking, puzzled, at her program - which, when run, would get so far, and then just sit there not doing anything.
I walked over and just took a brief glance at the screen, and pointed at a messy bit of code and said "The problem is that loop. It's infinite."
There then followed a few angry words telling me I was wrong - so I added a print statement just after the start of the loop and ran the program, and (no surprise) the program got as far as it previously did, and then executed my print statement over and over again.
The angry words got angrier because I had apparently "broken" the girl's program (rather than proven the instructor wrong).
Ah, those were the days.
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
I had a similar experience. I was already working as a professional programmer, but had no computing related academic qualifications so I decided to do an evening course at the local Tech college. The tutor for our C programming class kept on giving appalling example code with potential buffer overruns and the like. When I, as politely as possible, pointed out the problems the tutor got all snarky. He said he'd cover these pitfalls in later classes. He never did.
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
I was lucky, our teacher knew he didn't know anything about programming, so he would ask the 2 of us in the class that had taught ourselves at home when he or a pupil got stuck. Great teacher.
We didn't get RMs, our school had already invested in Commodore PETs. We got a single BBC Model A and a couple of C64s for the Accountancy class (don't ask!).
I taught myself machine code on the PET and when I got to college, they had them there as well. My first lesson was to write a program to calculate the number of coins to give in change for a given sum. I finished that in 10 minutes, so messed around with machine code making it "look pretty", I split the screen into input and output "windows" and displayed the input value using graphics to blow it up to 8 times its normal size and at the bottom it drew little piles of "coins" offset green bars.
The lecturer took one look at that and exclaimed "I never knew you could do that with a computer!" Oh brother!
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
I know this is a feel good nostalgia forum but I can't resist...
@ Chris Wareham
Lecturer should not have been snarky, but should have had you talking the rest of the class through an example of where a buffer overrun could happen (I don't program or teach programming, but I imagine that would involve pointer comparison/assignment/arithmetic or similar?).
The lecturer's dilemma: You were the student in the room with the complete mind map of the whole thing from your day to day experience. Some of the other students may have part of the map, but perhaps limited to leisure BASIC, other students may have been trying to learn programming from scratch in the medium of C.
Now how does the lecturer chop up the mind map you have into a series of chunks of information - and code exercises - that don't overload the student starting from scratch with too many concepts, but, equally, don't bore the pants off students like you? I mean the K&R book example code has issues.
A concrete example from the days when I ran short evening classes on making basic Web sites (geocities/ftp era): I've got every category you can imagine on a short course. Some can do the lot and have their own sites up blinking bling and all, others are designers who are trying to upskill, others are clerical staff (intranets) with little wider computer skills (Word all day and perhaps a shared drive to save to), and some are just generally clueless (mouse cable at bottom and not left handed) but have wicked ideas for Web pages. Great fun.
I had the techies doing the ftp/file management bit along with the 'change html in Notepad/save/refresh browser/check' bit with small groups. I had the designers talking people through a basic 'objectives, audience expectations, type and colours' bit. The ones who can get on once we all have a project plan and the basic skills do so, and I sit with the mouse fumblers. It seemed to work. I cherished the (one) student evaluation form that said 'the teacher does not teach much, we do most of it ourselves' as a complaint.
Nostalgia: I did a computer science O level in 1976 using coding sheets sent to a local data centre with printouts returned the next week. We had a modem with a dial next to a teletype for brief interactive sessions. Ed (Unix/PDP11 on the other end) seemed wonderful. I have actually seen line noise appear on the teletype.
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
True, us kids back then knew more than the IT teachers that were supposed to tutor us. We were re-writing their codes and making it much better, in reality it should have been them at the desks and us at the blackboard.
Re: Ahhh, the nostolgia.
Be happy - we got Quickbasic & Ada! The latter at university taught by the three musketeers - living proof that those who can't teach. They worked on the 3³ principle - ask the same question three times to all three off them separately - you'd get 9 different (wrong) answers.
I haven't run into the x80z series - a little before my time. The RM bane of my life was the BL Allegro skidmark tan 80186 - a truly horrible evolutionary dead end in x86 computing. Given how slow and awful that thing was its truly terrifying/amazing to think that NASA got to the moon using core rope or 'granny' memory - and a processor (that in comparison) couldnt have won tic-tac-toe against a brain damaged ant..
I've always wondered what would happen if someone ported Android to assembly - how much faster it would be & what specs would be needed. its no wonder programmers are lazy today when application cache files are often bigger than the memory in NASAs entire systems - combined! A whole fault tolerant failsafe custom OS (Skylab) - in under 16k - and the RM 186 looks positively wondrous - a terrifying thought..
Another cracking article - probably the best series on el Reg (after the BOFH of course).
Never used an RM machine at school, although I'm the right age to have been in comprehensive education at the time. We had a few broken CBM Pets, but that was it until the BBC Model B started to appear in considerable numbers. I think I would have enjoyed mucking about with the RM 380Z more than the Beeb though.
Ah, but what kind of mucking about?
A lot of our "mucking about" on the RM 380Zs and 480Zs at school had to be done strictly out of sight of the Computing Science teachers, who were co-opted from their own discipline of maths and generally very nervous about anything close to unveiling of the magic boards inside these machines, or attempting to connect anything to the back. Even the technology/electronics teacher wouldn't go anywhere near it. Still, messing about in machine code (assemblers? pah!) on this machine led me to an understanding and career path that BASIC and CESIL would never have reached.
Whilst I never got to use the 380Z, it sat proudly in the "computer cupboard" in my primary school in the mid to late 80s, alongside a couple of BBC B Micros and half a dozen ZX81s. The school had since purchased two RM Nimbuses, which had their own trolleys and dust covers. We would while away many a wet break trying to get past that room in Martello Tower with the rose window.
long time agao
This was the first computer I ever saw in action. Soon after I saw an Atari 800, which made it seem a little staid. Not too long after, I ruined my eyesight with a zx81 and a rubbish old TV. The zx also taught me a lot about anger management, via the medium of RAM pack wobble...
I have to admit...
Bit before my time i think, i never used on of these. I do remember using RM 386 Machines in high school so probably gives away my age.
I have to admit i do like this series of articles along with the antique code section. More please!
To put this into perspective, the 380Z and 480Z ran WordStar, the early CP/M based word processor, in less than 48Kb memory (paging documents and some code to and from disk), one ten thousandth of the 0.5GB nowadays regarded as essential for an entry level smartphone. WordStar was a step forward at the time for most people with full page editing, not bad on an 8bit processor several orders of magnitude slower than a modern throwaway SoC. For the more technically inclined, 380Z had front panel hexadecimal debugging.
I don't feel nostalgic about assembly programming full applications to fit into tiny spaces while counting clock cycles and memory latency instruction by instruction.
good ol' wordstar with it's dot commands for the 380Z - that brings back memories. However, before we had wordstar there was good old TXED with ctrl+letter for what would become cursor keys.
How times have a changed.
To put this into perspective, the 380Z and 480Z ran WordStar, the early CP/M based word processor, in less than 48Kb memory
To put it more into perspective ... when we first used 380Z's the RM screen editor TXED was considered to be an insanely enourmous program because its image was something like 12kB!
However, even that was somewhat bloated ... there was an idea at school to start teaching pascal and there was a pascal system for 380Z (Transam Pascal I think) but its main blocking point was that to input programs you had to use an EDLIN style line editor which was horible. Somehow we found out the as far as the rest of the pascal system was concerned the "editor" was used a piece of code that sat in a 2kB block of the RAM which was called and edit test in another defined block of memory - so anything that was 2kB or less could be used as the editor if it was patched into the image. We suggested to RM that a cut down TXED with be great but they said that wasn't possible but after a bit of cajolling they handed us the source code and said we should do it ourselves if we thought it was possible ... so I got to take a 380Z home with me over the summer holidays along with the TXED source code (all Z80 assembler) and by a process of removing editor commands that weren't needed and eliminating all the now redundanty code I eventually managed to get a fully function screen editor that was slightly under 2kB in size!
Via school contacts I almost got to work for RM duing my post-Oxbridge/pre-University "year" (we did post-A level Oxbridge so you ended with Jan-Sep to fill before University started) but that coincided with the Small/Fischer falling out so the school contacts managed to get me an alternative at Acorn during the build up to the BBC micro launch
Not really, I'm using Emacs at the moment and still from preference use ctrl+letters for what have become cursor keys. It's just much quicker as your fingers remain pretty much on patrol for normal typing. Same is true for end, home, page-up, page-down, etc. It's WASD for developers.
380 & 480Z
More good nostalgia!
At my school they had a 380Z and also a 480Z that strangely belonged to the science department and was rarely used. The 380Z lived in the maths department as the only computer literate teacher was in maths.
The BBCs appeared as I hit the 3rd year and started Computer Studies but the 380Z always had the draw of being a "proper" computer as opposed to a home computer with a Beeb badge.
Our school had one
I never saw it actually used for anything useful. I recall running it a few times using the enormous elephant disks it came with, but I can't recall doing else with it except that. I vaguely recall there may have been some 480Zs attached to it.
I was more impressed when someone turned up with a ZX81 and ran Monster Maze on it. It was like someone switched a bulb on in my head and demonstrated computers could do things I wanted to do rather than run crappy word processors. The school soon moved to BBC model Bs which were better as far as we were concerned once we figured out how to get games like Elite and Commando onto the server.
I remember the first day of my Computer Studies O level myself and my mate Simon sat at the single 380Z instead of all the BBC B machines because it looked more...techy.
For that day we played around on it and had fun accessing the disks in the two drives. But the next time, we sat back at the BBC B and there we stayed for the next two years. I don't think the 380Z was touched after that.
Would have been September 85 I guess. I often wonder what happened to that old beauty.
We had one at school
It really did feel like a 'proper' computer. Not like the Beebs.
I coded some BASIC games on it but nothing as good as the surprisingly good Space Invaders clone.
Where on the Iffley Road was the basement?
Re: Iffley Road
I remember quite a few of the older houses in Iffley Road having basements. Basements and students weren't particularly a good combination but they were definitely there.
Not just educational use
In the early 80's we had one in the office in our development lab, it was hooked up to an A3 pen plotter for drawing diagrams and flowcharts. I'm pretty sure ours had an 8" floppy drive though, I remember reverse-engineering the CP/M disk format and writing a program that could read/write the disks in the console drive of our VAX 11/780, that being the easiest way to transfer data between the two systems!
Great systems, always wanted one myself, but they were, as the article says, way too expensive for home use.
380Z was the second computer at school (a South West Technical Projects box preceeded it) and I still continued to use it when the BBC's came along. I preferred Z80 to 6502 assembler in class, and it was a 'proper' computer to use when I ran the computer room (aged 12-18) and I let in others to play Chuckie Egg on the BBC's.
Oooh... some memories of these beasts.
The ignition key and buttons to start the damn things... the obscene oddities in the version of basic that was inflicted on us, along with having to purchase floppy disks (yes, properly floppy ones) and then having to somehow keep them intact and undamaged which was a mission for teenagers. In the end all disk were kept in filing next to the computers which was entertaining when those closest to the metal of the cabinet started to exhibit odd failures... (luckily not mine).
And that's before you looked inside the things, with boards held in place with elastic bands which, appearing to be bog standard elastic bands, deteriated over time. Some of them had sellotape (single sided sticky tape for those that don't recognise the brand) holding key components together as well. We found string a good, persistent, fix for many hardware issues.
Other than being a system that was available and therefore encouraged active computer use, there was very little to like about the 380Zs. Especially when a year after my course started we got RM Nimbus systems instead - phenomenally overpriced and non-standard but a real step forward compared to the 380Z. Mind you, my take both of these was comparing them to the arguably rather superior home systems that were out at the same time but it took a brace computer science teacher (at this time, they were invariable maths teachers with an interest in computers) to suggest using something other than a BBC computer or an RM system but they were out there.
I still have a box here with some floppies for the 380Z; 72k per side, formatted. They have CP/M 1.4B on them, and if memory serves, probably ZASM for the assembler, and the rather quirky TXED text editor.
I remember too the manuals with their pages stating "This page intentionally left blank", and the prompt when you turned the box on "COS 3.4C/M", before pressing B to boot from the top floppy drive.
The one we had at school was eventually upgraded with the "hi resolution" graphics board, which would be changed to use as an additional 32k of memory instead, by pressing M, I think, at the COS prompt.
Great for learning or tinkering, of course, was the software front panel; ctrl-F if I recall, which you could use to see the registers, or even laboriously type in hex code from magazines. Type J 103 to resume your current program at the CP/M entry point.
Just for the hell of it, I once wrote an address book program that could dial phone numbers; I think I used a 2k ohm resistor, though perhaps it was more. It was wired in series with the cassette relay from the separate dual cassette control box, and the program turned the relay on and off rapidly to simulate pulse dialling.
The printer connected was an Anadex; can't remember the model number, but it was a hateful little beast.
>> The printer connected was an Anadex
I'd almost forgotten about those, or more correctly, almost purged it's memory from my mind !
First computer I got to play on was the Exidy Sorceror we had at 6th form - I believe they had "a computer" at secondary school but I never got to see it.
But we had an Anadex printer - which looking back was an elegant design with it's spiral grooved cylinder to drive the printhead back and forth. The head had to do two full passes, even if you were only printing one character ! And for a bonus, as it got worn, the positioning got slightly out so characters printed on the left->right passes didn't line up with those printed on the right->left passes.
<sarcasm>And wonderfully quiet</sarcasm>
Still, better than the first print I had - it had a single pin (or rather bar) in the printhead, and a ridged roller behind the paper. So the bar hammered away while the roller turned to allow the bar to print a column of dots. And at the end of the print line, the print head returned to the left with a spring.
Didn't actually see a 308Z until I got to Uni (IIRC it was in the Physics Dept where the computer club met), and by then I was already into other things and never got to learn how to drive it.
> I remember too the manuals with their pages stating "This page intentionally left blank", and the prompt when you turned the box on "COS 3.4C/M", before pressing B to boot from the top floppy drive.
Holy cow, that brings back memories. Yes TXED editor, a lot like vi I guess and "This page intentionally left blank": as a teenager I often wondered why. :D
I did a project for my 'O' level Control Technology. It was a small multi-note oscillator driven from the I/O port. You could play music and I wrote a little games that endeavoured to play "sound effects". The teacher asked me if they could keep it for demonstrations and having left school, I never saw it again. I often wonder what happened to it.
I had the chance to buy an old 380Z much later at Uni, but it had all the memory chips removed. A bit pointless but I wish now I'd taken it. They were the first machines I ever used at school and I still have very fond memories of them.
Never got near it
The 380Z we had at school was monopolised by by two dweebs (Hi Andy! Hi Chris!) who defended their fiefdom against any interlopers but especially girls. I left them to it and learned BASIC on my Dragon 32 instead.
I think we had 2 of them set up in our Maths hut! We then progressed to 4 BBC B's and about 6 Orics
Virtually unused at my school...
My school purchased one of these to use alongside our 3 Commodore Pets and ZX81. Unfortunately the matrhs teacher in charge of computing (a friend & I took over teaching the Computer Studies course from him!) was completely unable to understand the machine, and so banned everyone except one pupil who'd recently transferred from an other school & had used the 380z before, from using it! So he got the most powerful machine in the building to himself & the entire rest of the school shared 3 Pets and an ZX81....
The first computer I ever typed on was a Commodore PET 3016, but shortly after that turned up at the school, so did a bulky grey 'prototyping' keyboard case, attached by a huge umbilical cord to a standard colour TV. In the front of the case a microcassette drive was fitted.
To cut a long story short, this was a working prototype for the BBC Micro and our school was part of the development/trial programme. I wonder what happened to the unit - it was probably returned and ended up in a skip.
Anyone seen such a beast in a computer museum?
That’s changed my opinion of Research Machines
When I was at secondary school, the ‘computer room’ had about six BBC Micros and a couple of Commodore 64s. In my last year, an RM Nimbus appeared too. I remember it sat in the corner more or less unused – everyone was playing games on the BBCs and 64s – although occasionally someone would play a ‘Reversi’ type game on the Nimbus’ desktop and then get bored after five minutes.
As time went on and I learned the history of Acorn, and the subtle rivalry between Acorn and RM (them both targeting the educational sector), I came to have quite a distain for RM – believing them to be completely un-innovative and simply churning out PC clones. Compare and contrast that with Acorn’s innovative and original designs.
My opinion of RM didn’t improve when I later saw an advertisement for an RM machine, in Acorn User magazine no less (talk about aiding the enemy!), which basically slagged off the Acorn Archimedes (fast chips but no software) and the Apple Mac (screen like a letterbox). Bloody liberty!
But having read this article, my opinion of RM has softened. The record has been set straight - they obviously were innovators – at least at the outset. And they were ahead of the game by a few years. Maybe they weren’t so bad after all!
Re: That’s changed my opinion of Research Machines
I too was surprised by the early innovation of the RM founders, compared to what it later became; selling under powered PC clones with obscenely expensive support contracts to schools.
Re: That’s changed my opinion of Research Machines
Same here, it was nice to see the work and effort they put into it all. Otherwise all we'll remember about RM is the "under powered PC clones with obscenely expensive support contracts".
Re: That’s changed my opinion of Research Machines
I think while they may have had all of the infrastructure required, networking, winchester disks (cornetto anyone?), they were so tiresome and dull as to put most kids off computers for life.
Even the rather serious BBC Micro looked more fun.
I worked for RM in the early 80's as a contract programmer - assembler & BCPL, providing the 480Z ROMPACK firmware / ROM Basic support and device programming software.
Your article certainly brings back memories of the old Mill Lane (Bakery) site. A fantastic group of talented people to work with.
was installing these at an adult education college when I was about 17, so in 1990 or 1991. They were surplus to requirments at my own school, where they had been used for introductory computing and wordprocessing classes (there were some not-quite-100% PC XT clones, maybe also from RM, for programming on, and when I say "programming" I mean "bootleg copies of Tetris"). Anyway it was a network setup, with - I presume - a 480Z acting as the server and 380Zs as clients. By that time they were thoroughly antiquated and I remember not being too impressed by them, but it was something like 50 quid for an afternoon's work so mustn't grumble.
We had a 480Z and a bunch of Nimbuses (286es?) in my high school. We had them when I started the school in 88 and it was still there when we left 93.
another great nostalgic article
We did our O-Level computer studies in 1978, a year after our main o-levels.
We learned CESIL (computer education in schools instruction language), BASIC & then a bit of FORTRAN on an ICL-1904 at Allt-Yr-Yn college in Newport (Gwent as was).
We did another year after that (mainly to dodge 'games' on a Wed afternoon) using the Allt-yr-yn facilites (now demoished, it's a housing estate).
They had a CNC tool machine, a commodore pet (with the calculator style keyboard) and in '79, I think, a 4K RM machine, with a b&w tv from currys. we 'translated' our 1904 basic progs to run on it!
Re: another great nostalgic article
Ditto, except in Warwickshire, at the local FE college because it had teletype with a line to some OU computer somewhere and the grammar school I went to didn't. After about a term, someone at the FE college saw the bill for the line and worked out that buying the 380Z would be much cheaper.
It had proper 8" discs, not the wimpy 5 1/4" ones, and by putting one in the wrong way, I broke it... Ah, happy days. It was fixed in a week or two. I still have good memories of the keyboard - a mechanical one you could really bash.
When I got to university, the department had a few and reckoned the CP/M BIOS was written by an Oxford undergrad while watching TV.
I was a little young to remember the 380Z (I thought it was a sports car).
I do, however, recall the Nimbus x86 machines.
I recall the early 90s when my primary school was chuffed to get one, they had us taking turns making xmas cards on MS Paintbrush / Win3.0.
Then by the mid 90s, my secondary school which had some sort of weird BNC network of 386 Nimbuses, which ran an RM login programme to boot Windows 3.0 off a central server. Incredibly slow. We did used to disconnect them from the network, boot them off our own boot disks with single disk games.
By the mid-late 90s the RM offerings were just generic Pentium / Pentium2 PCs running Win95 / Win98.
"Then by the mid 90s, my secondary school which had some sort of weird BNC network of 386 Nimbuses, which ran an RM login programme to boot Windows 3.0 off a central server. Incredibly slow."
We had exactly the same - I remember the slowness, the teacher used to make us login to windows 3 in batches so as not to bring it all grinding to a halt. If I remember rightly the nimbuses didn't have hard disks and we had to save our work onto floppies This must have been a standard setup, what sort of network would it have been?
Probably 10 base 2 Ethernet - 10Mbits, flaky connectors and difficult to debug.
"Weird BNC Network" - that will be Ethernet then!
Our school had a couple of 380Z machines in the early 80s which were owned by the maths dept I think. We then became part of some government pilot IT scheme (1983?) and were supplied with a network of 480Zs that shared one vast "Winchester" disk, probably 5Mb! Initially they were on a bus that traveled from school to school but the following year we got our own, on which we wrote games and otherwise messed around (yes also Wordstar dot commands, nostalgia....sigh)
Ethernet is quite a catch-all term :
If you mean the RG58 coax version, that'll be 10BASE2 :
Never impressed by the 380Z
I always regarded the 380Z as a bit of a lemon, mainly because I did not see one until 1982, after I had my own BBC Model B. I guess that if I had seen it earlier, I might have had a different opinion, although I'm not sure, having first used UNIX in 1978.
It always struck me as slow (especially with the high resolution graphics board), but I did appreciate that it ran CP/M, and thus had a large library of software, provided that you could get it on the slightly unusual disk format (not that there was a standard disk format at the time).
The one I had control of used to be used mainly by one member of staff who wanted to use Wordstar and the QUME Sprint 5 daisy-wheel printer. There was one postgrad who had a strange project to try to connect it up to the Newcastle Connection (aka UNIX United!) as a client machine over RS232 - there being no Cambridge Ring hardware for the 380Z (daft really, as the filesystem API was too different between CP/M and UNIX). He never completed the project, because it turned out that he was a draft dodger from his home in Greece, and he went home to see his family, and was promptly arrested as he stepped off the plane! It did mean that I got to see the UNIX United! source code, as I had to add it to 'my' V7 UNIX PDP11.
The original Nimbus machines were crazy - One of the few uses of the 80186, came with a weird version of Windows (2.33 I think), and had a crazy graphics architecture that was somewhat similar to the BBC micro, allowing them to run a BBC BASIC interpreter.
Even the 386 machines weren't simple clones - I remember getting into trouble for reconfiguring one to run in 386 Enhanced mode instead of the default Standard mode, which broke it terribly.
Ah yes, I remember it well........
I too lovingly remember the 380Z, whilst in the lower 6th at school in 1978. It is on this I learned, by myself, to program in BASIC from a Xerox'ed pamphlet of BASIC commands. None of the teachers knew how to program it, so we were on our own at lunchtimes or free periods. I wrote, among others, a quadratic equation solver and a text based car simulator, since I was learning to drive at the time. I have now been a programmer for 35 years and it is thanks to the RML380Z that I can say that. Apart from having to save programs twice onto audio cassettes which often failed to reload, it was an excellent introduction into computer programming.
Great Article, Thanks
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