Sunday, 11 October 2009

Up to a massive 48k of RAM!

Sinclair on the BBC Micro: "The BBC Micro looks like it was designed by a Belgian brick layer."

There was a very wry affectionate look at home computing in the 1980s, "Micromen" on BBC 4 last night. It was to do with the rivalry between Clive Sinclair (with his ZX computers) and Chris Curry of Acorn, who won the contract for the BBC Microcomputers. My son thoroughly enjoyed seeing what the future used to look like.

Before that computers were all large mainfraimes, and coincidentally, an episode of the Sweeney on ITV3 called "The Tomorrow Man" was all about a computer expert. Jack Reagan commented that it "was all science fiction to him". The business computer was a rare item, only some businesses had them, and locally Channel Data Processing provided a bureau services for payroll and like functions using a state of the art tape reader that worked by shining lights through the holes.

On Micromen, the producer Andrea Cornwell noted that it took 18 months of research. On the two products, the ZX Spectrum and the Acorn, she commented: "I think they each had complementary products - the Acorn computer was more advanced but cost a lot more, for example. I had a BBC Micro as my father was a teacher and he would borrow his school's computer. The director [Saul Metzstein] was a Commodore owner, and a lot of the crew were computer enthusiasts at the time - many still have their Spectrums in the attic."

It was fascinating to see how - from the archive clips - the politicians really were completely unaccustomed to using the new technology, they wanted to be seen pressing a button (once everything was set up for them). Margaret Thatcher in one clip, was clearly extolling the virtues in a speech that had been written for her, and which she didn't understand. There were also some wonderful clips of the BBC TV programmes about using the BBC Micro. It was also the heyday of Mensa, and the programme showed Clive making a speech when he was elected President of British Mensa.

The race for the BBC contract led to Acorn having to produce prototype of a computer within five days to show to the BBC! Bill Gates did something very similar with his pitch of MS-DOS (adapted from Q-DOS) to IBM.

One thing that struck me was how incredibly clunky it was. Keyboards with membranes that didn't work well, or the large BBC keyboard which clearly had little ergonomic consideration for the user, and the complete absence of mice. The Sinclair "Microdrive", a kind of early floppy drive saw an appearance only right at the end, and before that both programs and data storage relied on tape recorders.

A teacher in those days tells me that he recalls going from "making a 4 input NAND gate from discrete transistors to to the Spectrum, Atari, BBC Micro, Video Genie, the argument between Apple and Acorn + Research Machines 380Z. The use of tape recorders to store programmes was particularly frustrating."

Also at the end of the film, Sir Clive was seen whizzing along in the Sinclair C5 (overtaken by a large lorry with Microsoft on the side). The C5 was an extremely odd looking contraption, which now is a collectors item selling for around £800. The Steam Museum in Trinity actually has one on display. The much more useful Wheelchair Drive Unit, an attachment for manual wheelchairs to provide a boost for the person pushing them when going uphill, is still being made today, selling for around £300.

In the end, the market was oversaturated, and collapsed. I remember pc magazines of the time had ever expanding lists of rivals to the Sinclair Spectrum, and the Acorn - the Atari, Commodore 64, Dragon, Orac (named after the computer in the popular TV series Blake's Seven), and many more.

After than Alan Sugar brought out the Amstrad PCW range came out (just at the end of the story), it had built in floppy drives as standard, and quite good word processing software for the time, and its own printer and monitor as standard. I used one - ironically as Alan Sugar took over from Clive Sinclair - for writing articles and reviews for the Channel Island Mensa magazine. It was a cheap but serious office product, and unlike Sinclair's QL (Quantum Leap), it actually worked.

After the story ended, the first American personal computers began - the ACT Sirius, the DEC Rainbow, and the IBM pc. I remember we used a DEC PDP-11 at work, and there was a lot of discussion with the Jersey DEC users group which product would take off. The consensus was to wait and see. However, the States of Jersey also used DEC mainframes, so decided to go down the DEC route, and place the DEC Rainbow on a large number of departmental desks! In less than 5 years, they would be obsolete.

One curiosity of the programme. Although the Sinclair ZX81, the BBC Micro and the Acorn Electron are like extinct animals, almost completely forgotten by youngsters today, the ARM chip is still very much in use today, a legacy from that past.

The Acorn used the specially designed ARM chip (ARM meant originally Acorn RISC machine), and because of the relative simplicity of ARM processors, they were very suitable for low power applications, and its modern descendant still is found in more than a billion mobile phones (98% of the market) and 90% of embedded processors in consumer electronics - PDAs, mobile phones, iPods and other digital media and music players, hand-held game consoles, calculators and computer peripherals such as hard drives and routers.

In one of his TV adverts, Clive Sinclair extolled the virtues of the Sinclair Spectrum, as having "up to a massive 48k of RAM"! Then MS-DOS and IBM came along with a really great 640k of RAM. We had to have lean mean little programs in those days. But now we have 4 GB or more of RAM and bloatware that consumes it like a sperm whale. I think something has been lost along the way.


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine emailed me to say:

"Thanks, Tony. Such nostalgia!!! I had a Dragon 32, which was a well-built machine. However, storage was an ordinary audio cassette and data transfer was extremely flaky. I think that I must have disposed of it at some stage – shame – our son simply would not have believed it!"

Anonymous said...

It was an enjoyable show and quite accurate if comments on the digitalspy forums are anything to go by.

It can be watched again on iPlayer at