back to article Look back in Ascii: Computing in the 1980s

Reg Hardware Retro Week Logo When I landed the job of Doctor Who Script Editor in 1981, I knew I needed a computer. Actually it was something I'd known since the age of 12, but back then you couldn't get started for less than half a million dollars. Now you could pick up a Sinclair ZX81 for a shade under fifty quid in kit …


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  1. John Lewis 4
    Thumb Up

    Commodore PET

    First Desktop computer I saw back in 1977/78.

    Beat the port-a-punch punch cards at school.

    1. Phil 54

      Re: Commodore PET

      I was only 4 or 5 when my dad brought one home. It was brilliant.

    2. Parax

      Re: Commodore PET

      I recall the keyboard being a lot more nasty than that one in the picture.. that looks like the C64 keyboard the Pet, I had as a kid had tiny angular low profile square keys, in a horrible yellow with silver stick-on inserts..

      still, It was fun to mess with.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Commodore PET

        Yes this.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Commodore PET

          So the 2000 Series had the chiclet Keyboard (and tape) as here. The 4000 series had the better keybord and screen as here

          So that picture in the article is some sort of bastardisd/Photoshopped version with the 2000 label and screen but the 4000 keyboard?

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Commodore PET

            > So that picture in the article is some sort of bastardisd/Photoshopped version with the 2000 label

            > and screen but the 4000 keyboard?

            If memory serves, you could upgrade the keyboard of the 2000 series with a 4000-style one. It was just a matter of opening the case, disconnecting the old keyboard's ribbon connector, removing the screws that held it in place, and installing the new keyboard.

            I had (on loan, for a while) a 2000-series PET that had a full-size external keyboard added on, The external keyboard had a ribbon cable with a Y-connector; we opened the case, plugged the new keyboard's cable in between the planar and the old keyboard, and closed up again, with the ribbon cable squeezing out between the halves of the case. Both keyboards worked, which was useful for 2-player games (which we wrote ourselves, of course - kids these days using store-bought games...).

  2. Herby Silver badge

    First laptop?

    I thought it was the Radio Shack (Tandy in UK) TRS80 Model 100. These were used by field reporters for newspapers for quite a while as I understand it. They came with a "built-in" modem (you needed a special cable, and it didn't dial). They are actually pretty nice machines (I have one).

    The one I have I expanded its RAM from 8k to 32k using chips that weren't available in 1981 (its release I believe).

    Now for the real trivia: This was the last machine that Bill Gates actually worked on the software.

    1. Trygve Henriksen

      Re: First laptop?


      The TRS-80 Model 100 arrived in 1983, a year later than the Epson.

      It was probably beaten by the Casio FP-200, too, but that one was labelled as a 'Handheld computer' in the manual...

      The TRS-80 is said by some to be the last machine that BillG wrote SW for himself.

      Most of the built-in apps will crash with a hopeless error message if you try to start them without first creating the default file it needs to store its data...

    2. Simon Round

      Re: First laptop?


      You are right about reporter using the TRS80 Model 100's. I worked for a newspaper in the IT department back in the late 80's/early 90's. We had these built into attache cases with a specially built rechargeable battery pack and an acoustic coupler. This made the computer useable over prolonged periods of time and allowing the reporter to send in their copy from any telephone that was available (including public phones). The receiving computer was a PDP 11/84 mainframe.

      Wish I had kept a few of them. Alas they were binned many years ago and are probably at the bottom of a land fill.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        @Simon Round

        A PDP 11/84 was a single-chip PDP 11 processor (J11?) in a minicomputer rack (it had a UNIBUS rather than a QBUS which made it a proper PDP 11 rather than a micro PDP 11 like the 11/83).

        It was definitely *NOT* a mainframe, but a 16 bit minicomputer with address extension. IIRC, it probably was the most powerful of the whole PDP/11 family (I mean real PDP 11 rather than a VAX 11).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Simon Round

          "PDP11/84 was definitely *NOT* a mainframe"

          You know that, I know that, but to today's younger people, if it isn't an x86 or never appeared in the pages of PCW or Computing Toady it's a mainframe.

          Yes it was probably the most powerful commercially available PDP11 ever sold by DEC. 16 bit registers, 64kB address space per program (give or take), 4MB total addressable memory via memory management.

          Nice, especially when booting RT11 out of silicon disk (back in the days when you could fit a whole OS onto a <4MB disk).

          1. Simon Round

            Re: @Simon Round

            @Peter Gathercole & @AC

            OK. You both got me bang to rights. I've used the term 'mainframe' without really thinking about it.

            To be honest I never had anything to do with the PDP 11/84. I worked on the PC, MAC, Unix side of things and the 11/84 was, to me, a beast that sat in the corner that the editorial and pre-press department used.

  3. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Psion 3 arrived a little too late for the 80s. But is probably what you were looking for?

    1. Jean Le PHARMACIEN

      This is the Psion you are looking for - don't move along...

      Seriously the Psion 3 was the bees knees and as for battery life - modern smartphones - eat your RAM! Def3nder was a real [keypad] trial

      1. Trygve Henriksen


        I still use a 3c now and then for notetaking. The knowledge that you can leave it on your desk for a month, then pick it up and continue your document as if nothing happened is just nice...

        My S5 is packed away, ny netBook is mostly used for games, and even my MC400 languishes, but my S3c is always close by.

    2. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      Organiser II, Apple ][

      Heck, I've typed insane amounts on the Psion Organiser II but granted, that was code. I actually miss the simple flat file databases it had - you could mess around with the record buffer in code and get very creative with what you could store (which you had to, the max size ever to fit in that machine was 2x 256k flashpack).

      It would have been useless for serious amounts of text, and I agree with the general opinion on the 3c. The 5 wasn't bad either, but I never got that to sync properly (that was IMHO the eternal problem).

      As for the Apple ][, you could save yourself some money by assembling it yourself - buy the motherboard and start soldering (there was a Pear II at some point, not quite original, but annoying enough to ensure Apple went solidly proprietary :).

      Oh, and IBM: my first PC was a clone with a Turbo button (remember those?), using DoubleDOS so I could do more than one thing at once :).

      1. Blake St. Claire

        Re: Organiser II, Apple ][

        Apple][s you could assemble yourself? Not sure what alternate universe that was in, not this one.

        Apple 1 perhaps.

        There were several Apple ][ clones besides the Pear.

        1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

          Re: Organiser II, Apple ][

          In the Benelux you could buy the motherboards quite easily, no idea where they came from.

  4. James 51 Silver badge

    Psion 5MX

    Haven't seen anything that beats it yet. My N900 comes close but the fantasic keyboard clinches it for the MX.

    1. AndrewInIreland

      Re: Psion 5MX

      someone with a bit of start up capital has to think that an Android running on the 5MX style hardware would be a great business idea.

      Maybe we should get a few interested parties together and put it up on KickStarter. I wonder if the El Reg Labs are currently vacant...

  5. Stanislaw
    Thumb Up

    Exidy Sorcerer

    Best name for a personal computer ever.

    Can't comment on the beast itself as I was about twelve when they went out of production and I was still trying to get the RAM pack to stop wobbling on my ZX80. All I knew was, I wanted a computer called a Sorcerer.

    1. Steve Evans

      Re: Exidy Sorcerer

      I remember the first (and only) time I saw one of these. It must have been round 1981/2. It belonged to an American boy who'd just come across to the UK when his parents relocated.

      I remember him being very proud of his DIY ram upgrade, which comprised of a load of piggy-backed chips on the existing RAM, and a load of thin wires running off across the board.

      These day it's an obvious upgrade with the chip selects being the thin wire runs, but at the time I thought it was akin to witchcraft.

      1. MondoMan
        Thumb Up

        Re: Exidy Sorcerer

        The Sorcerer -- now that was a sweet computer! User-definable graphics characters so you could set up a small portion of the display as bit-mapped, a ROM cartridge word processor that actually worked better than a typewriter, and the not-so-sweet screeching of a dot-matrix printer.

  6. Dredge Judd
    Thumb Up

    Happy(?) memories...

    Great trip down memory lane for me as someone who cut their computing teeth on many of the eclectic beasties mentioned in the article.

    My first "proper" job included the maintenance of a whole menagerie of micros for my local FE college and this collection included a couple of dozen CBM PETs, largely 4000s, but a few 8096s, too.

    Someone at the college was obviously a fan of Commodore products as we also had a number of C64s, too. There was a diskette we had with a proggy on it that made the floppy drive play the tune "Daisy Bell" by causing it to perform some probably rather dubious operations. Check it out here:


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Happy(?) memories...

      Magnificent :-)

      This, guys and gals is what sets us apart from the beasts of the fields!

      That mp3 has fair made my day.

  7. Jaruzel
    Thumb Up


    1. I learnt to program during my final year of primary school on a ZX81, complete with wobbly RAMPack.

    2. I eventually was bought a VIC-20 by my parents, to whom I immediately demanded it be replaced with a more usable C-64.

    3. A short time later, I got a modem for the C-64 that plugged into the cartridge slot, and opened up the world of fledgling BBSs, Prestel/Micronet and of course Commodore's own Compunet.

    4. I became addicted to Shades (a MUD type game on Prestel).

    5. I lost all my pocket money for about 5 years due to MASSIVE phone bills. ;)

    6. Graduated to an Amiga 500, then 500+. Got heavily into the Amiga demo scene.

    7. Moved over to an Amstrad 1512, which I slowly added an ISA based HDD, a 3.5" floppy drive for drive B: and a new NEC V30 CPU to replace the Intel 8086 and double it's speed. Also added an ISA modem card to continue my Shades addiction.

    These days, I have a 42U rack of servers in my garage, and practically a laptop/tablet or desktop in every room of my house, plus a pile of unused kit, just... in... case...

    Getting in to computing in the early days created a feeling that even the purchase of today's latest shiny phone or gadget cannot even hope to re-create.

    1. Simon Round

      Re: Ahhh....

      Quite scarily similar to my story.

      1. My first computer was a ZX81 which I got in the 3rd year of comprehensive school. Learnt to program it and had wonderlust for computers since that day.

      2. Didn't move onto Commodore computers. Instead moved to Acorn BBC's and as these were the computers we used at School.

      3. When I started working I bought a modem and rigged up a telephone point in my bedroom. Also got addicted to BBS's. Somewhere I still have my little red book of BBS numbers, usernames and passwords. Of course the BBS's are long gone but it was happy memories.

      4. Got addicted to some of the online games on the BBS's. Shame I can't remember the names of any of them.

      5. Ran up a big phone bill. Game my dad a few grey hairs and worry lines until he mentioned this big bill and he did not know how it had got so big. Of course I confessed as, like many others, I did not associated what I was doing with the cost of the time online. Luckily as I was working I was able to pay the bill and was very very carefull after that.

      6. Moved onto an Amiga 500 and later a 1200. Joined a local computer club where we met up every few weeks in a rented room at a social club where everybody setup their kit and demoed the latest software, hardware, etc.

      7. Work bought Amstrad 1512 and 1640 computers for the accoutants which we then networked using some third parts expansion cards, cables and a 1640 (with hard drive) as a central server. These were the days of Lotus 123 and Supercalc. Long before Microsoft Office. I remember using an early Norton Tools to defragment 300k 5.25" floppy disks.

      These days I don't have a rack of severs bit do have computers in practically every room of the house. The wife won't let me put one in the toilet.

      I agree with your last sentiment. Those days were very exciting. There was a certain euphoria every time you open a new game, read about the latest computer or Hardware addon. I just don't get the same feeling with modem gadgets.

      1. Alan Edwards

        Re: Ahhh....

        Very similar here too...

        Started on a ZX81, moved on to an Acorn Electron, then an Amstrad PC1512. Not sure I ever had a modem on those machines, I think my first was a 14,400 on an Olivetti 486 when I got my own place. I'd had modems at work for a while, though.

        Excitement at school when the Research Machines 380Z was finally pensioned off for a network of BBC Micros with a gigantic Winchester hard disc in the corner. It was probably 5 or 10 meg, but was physically the size of a BBC. That would have been about 1985.

        My 'rack' of servers is two HP ProLiant Microservers, one on top of the other. One is a 6Tb (4x2Tb RAID-5) NAS, the other is a VMWare ESXi host. I seem to be buying too many tablets at the moment, I have a ViewSonic ViewPad 7, a ZTE V9A and an iPad, and I'm still eyeing the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7-inch.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Ahhh....

      Started with a Beeb, played with Econet at school. Moved to RISC OS...

      I now use a PC for my day to day stuff, but in the corner is an Econet file server, a Beeb, a RiscPC, and three other RISC OS machines. They see less action than they used to, sadly. Though I hope that the port to the RaspberryPi will be ready by the time I order mine.

      I wonder if part of the problem is that the old machines invited you to enjoy them. The circuits were easy to understand, the processors weren't a nightmare, the API was fairly well exposed, and they all came with a language built in. Even the Speccy and the Oric had dialects of BASIC.

      As opposed to modern stuff where the box itself can't do anything without some sort of OS to load. Linux contains programming tools, but installing and setting up an entire OS is a world different to a '>' prompt. Windows? There's pretty much nothing "out of the box". Game consoles? I picked up a dead XBOX for a euro and I now understand that I'll need to modchip it simply to replace the broken harddisc. Things these days are aimed at providing a consumer-oriented service, and as such try to keep you out of the machine instead of welcoming you in.

      Once upon a time, instruction manuals told you the processor instruction set in one of the appendices. Now? You probably need to Wiki to find out what processor it actually uses...

      <nostalgic sigh!>

  8. Anonymous Coward

    How could you leave out the QL?

    This is personal - look at my sig. I still have three of them plus screen and printer in the loft. Admittedly appallingly timed, and with initial production problems, and other corners cut (like the 68008) but a good idea and an affordable one.

    1. Steve Evans

      Re: How could you leave out the QL?

      Appalling storage solution too!

  9. Shtrobvik

    Microwriter Agenda

    I had one of those machines, and the 5-finger typing was very practical - hugely better than trying to type on a Blackberry style keyboard. It strikes me that someone with coding knowledge could revive this system for smartphones and tablets. Anyone out there interested?

    1. Trygve Henriksen

      Re: Microwriter Agenda

      Oh yes, it was good...

      Unless you happened to be lefthanded like me.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Microwriter Agenda

        ... and I imagine that you must get naffed-off by the many mice that are made today in Right-Hand-'Drive' configuration only! Maybe this 3D printing malarky will mature and allow everyone a mouse or HID of their choice.

        It seems curious that a right-handed guitarist would use their left hand to form 'chords' in a similar fashion to a Microwriter. I would like to hear from Reg Readers about their experience of chorded typing, because I have a sausage-fingered friend who swears keyboard keys are too small for him. He can play guitar very well, though, so I'm not sure what to recommend to him - perseverance or technology.

        1. Trygve Henriksen

          Re: Microwriter Agenda

          Yes, getting a proper mouse is a bit of a pain...

          (And a lot more if you don't get the right one)

          For many years, my main mouse was a Sicos Colani lefthanded model.

          I still have it, but these dayss it's only used with my eCS tower.

          (My other home computer is a Mac Mini, and there I use a crappy no-brand unisex mouse)

          At work I use an Evoluent Vertical Mouse which is also available in lefthanded versions.

          (And several sizes)

          Oh, and at home I'm slowly getting a Mendel Prusa 3D printer up and running... ;-)

          1. Darryl

            @Trygve Henriksen Re: Microwriter Agenda

            So you didn't have your left-handedness beaten out of you by Catholic school, huh? Lucky

            1. Trygve Henriksen

              Re: @Trygve Henriksen Microwriter Agenda

              Not many Catholic Schools here in Norway...

    2. LaeMing Silver badge

      Re: Microwriter Agenda

      Though it is for a desktop (I don't compute outside), I like my Infogrip BAT chord keyboard. Though I want to team it with a programmable numeric keypad for some of the programming-common symbols that are not so easy to remember the chords for. For alpha and common punctuation, it is unbelivably good, and for numeric quite passable.

    3. Richard Ball

      Re: Microwriter Agenda

      Like the idea of chord typing, but I once learnt BSL so my middle finger is I not O!

      (E and U are correct)

  10. Richard Jones 1

    That made me feel Old

    Those were interesting times, for me DOS ruled the world and though I did look at an apple in the early to mid eighties I stayed with the PC. 8088 and then the Toshiba 286 portable, the one with the orange screen which travelled the globe with me - I must have been stronger then!

    You were right about modems and the magic of being able to collect data from some far away device and do interesting things. In my case I worked in telecomms amd logging into distant switches and collecting data was a new kind of magic. Automatically processing data that used to take months of manual effort was done in a few seconds. It was cheaper to buy and run a PC than to put ink on paper. Operator staffing schemes could be planned and designed by collecting data 24 hours a day, deciding when staff were needed and how schedules should be prepared. Network upgrades could be planned on the basis of real hard data collected in near real time and analysed within hours if not minutes.

    In the days before Ethernet, sneaker net worked almost as well for the PC farm I had with really cheap PCs collecting data and one big machine with a hard disk and a 286 chip processed the data. What had appeared to be massinve amounts of print data was acutally so small in data processing terms that I had both RS232 ports active at the same time collecting data from two sources and running separate collecting routines on DOS based 8086 machines.

    By the mid eightries I had a software models of the switches we used running on my home computer and talking with data manager models on the portable to test out the programs I was developing. This helped to automate data entry so that accouning records were taken from the main frame IBM machine and after suitable editing and reformatting fed straight into new stwitches as they were brought into servce. Two week's work done in two hours, with full printouts of every error found - not like the results of manual key punching from paper records.

    My first experience of computers had been with the Z80 processor the code all written in assembler. It drove a training facility only we changed the system and had 24 expensive training programs that no longer represented the way that the facility needed to work. Re-programming assembler at 'up to 6 bytes at a time' in HEX through direct memory pokes teneded to teach you to be careful and dump the memory frequently.The alternaitive was to see many hours of careful work evaporate on the first run of the test.. The recording medium was a cassett tape using the output of a modem into the recorder's sound recording facility - no digital recording at that time.

    All in all interesting times.

    One last thought, my PC farm grew quite large and was all run off the building UPS, as things developed it drew more power than the main frames in the 'proper DP centre' that ran the billing and other commercial functions.

    At least I confined my efforts to off line devices, unlike the character in another country who was denied access to a PC. He worked out how to run his programs on the swich (central office) he was supposed to manage. They worked but nearly crippled the central office with the extra load.

    As I said interesting times

  11. Mr Larrington

    IBM Selectric Golfball typewriter?

    What's not to like? I churned out masses of total bollocks on one of these as a Penniless Student Oaf in the mid-80's and it was streets ahead of my crappy Olivetti portable.

    I used to work with a chap who used the predecessor of that Microwriter wossname for *everything*. It was spooky watching him in meetings taking notes with one hand, without even looking at the thing.

  12. Captain Hogwash Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Commodore PET

    First shown to me in a maths class by Mr Ratcliffe in 1979 who then went on to describe the internet of today. Great teacher, great machine. I owe my career to both. One more thing, the PET was not butt ugly. It looked great - proper 1970s futurism.

    1. Darryl

      Re: Commodore PET

      Exactly! The PET was the only one that would've fit in on the set of Star Trek or Dr. Who "way back then"

      1. JEDIDIAH

        Re: Commodore PET

        The PET did end up on the set of Star Trek. It was in the background of Kirk's apartment in Star Trek 2.

  13. Magnus_Pym


    My first job was to 'operate' a Cifer 2683 connected to a double floppy drive and a huge line printer for the production of barcoded labels.

    It had two z80's one for the screen control and one for processing. It had various built in 'hooks' on all the i/o systems and I had to add a bit of machine code to enable the printer to output pound signs in place of dollars for some labels.

  14. Gitski

    First time i Personalised a computer was with Directory Opus on the Amiga.

    Oh the memory's

  15. LaeMing Silver badge

    Z88 was likely the first computer device I ever lusted for.

    Of course I had had a VZ200, then a C64, but while they were great, I really really wanted a Z88. Too young to have my own income though :-(

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Z88 was likely the first computer device I ever lusted for.

      Oh I loved my Z88 which saw me good for hundreds of thousands of words before - perhaps inevitably - the keyboard membrane failed. By then Sinclair Research had gone on to make electric bikes and it went to the great scrapheap in the sky.

      But like the folks above with fond memories of their Psions lasting for months on cheap AA batteries - I have to ask, is there really no market for machines with enormous battery lives?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Z88 was likely the first computer device I ever lusted for.

        Well as I sit here in the study the original box for my Z88 is on a shelf next to me, and the Z88 itself is sitting nearby in its neat carry case. Somewhere on another shelf is my copy of 'Z88 Computing' by Ian Sinclair. Oh, and I've just found the original User Guide.

        I remember taking my Z88 to a PC conference in Holland (those were the days of companies paying to go on conferences). I took my conference notes typing directly into the Z88.

        Definitely one of the first truly flexible portable computers; lightweight, not too big, useful software that matched my business software.

        Of course things are much better these days. When I travel now I only have my mobile, my company mobile, my (Android) tablet and a netbook. Yes, definitely better.....


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