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The joys of 1980s home computing

a photo of an ealry computer resembling a typewriter

The Sinclair ZX80. Courtesy TNMOC.

The National Museum of Computing at Bletchely Park takes us back to the 1980s and the revolution in home computing

Hands up who had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum? If so this small but perfectly created pop up display of obsolete 1980s computers will be right up your street.

The off-white / beige hue that permeated the world of 1980s tech also permeates this nostalgic display of home computers at the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC). And there are some classics on show.

It might look like a cross between an old electric typewriter and a home-made transistor radio, but in its day the 1980 Acorn Atom was a revelation, with an integral keyboard and cassette tape interface. You could build it as a kit for £120 or get one ready assembled for £170 – or £200 if you wanted a whopping 12 KB of RAM.

And how about the Sinclair ZX Spectrum? Paul Gent, one of the three volunteers at the museum who has curated the temporary exhibition, recalls: “I was one of those ten-year-old children who in the early 1980s so badly wanted a ZX Spectrum for Christmas.

a photo of a room with four old computers on a table

Just look at these beauties. Acorn and Sinclair Computers. Courtesy TNMOC.

The Atari Portfolio. A portable office 1980s style. Courtesy TNMOC.

“That machine was a revelation – it brought colour screens to home computing along with exciting beeping noises and video games that looked like those we had previously seen only in amusement arcades. The pace of development was breath-taking – and so much of the technology was developed in Britain!”

From Sinclair ZX80s through ZX Spectrums to the BBC micro, visitors of a certain age can relive their entry into computing with hands-on access to many of these original machines.

Video clips also offer reminders of the landmark BBC computer literacy series that introduced so many of today’s computer programmers – and the BBC micro – to the fast-developing world of computing.

As well as reliving these glory days by having a go on these 1980s machines there are some lesser known but important models on display, and a reminder of how the RISC computer, developed for the BBC micro, went on to become the ARM chip that today is found in almost every smartphone on the planet.

David Allen, producer of the 1980s BBC Computer Literacy Series, is looking forward to seeing the display and the excerpts of his programmes. “For nearly ten years our series explained and reported on the computer revolution. We were in the right place at the right time and anticipated technology now taken for granted – from the mobile phone to robotics to artificial intelligence.”

a photo of three basic keyboard computers on a table

Names to make you dewy-eyed. The Acorn Atom, The Grundy Newbrain, The Jupiter Ace. Courtesy TNMOC.

a photo of an old computer with monitor and keyboard on a table

Fancy a game of Sonic2 on my Amstrad? Courtesy TNMOC.

For some people these are forgotten treasures from a time when the only person in your class at school to show any interest in a computer was the clever kid who preferred Tomorrow’s World to Top of the Pops.

How things have changed. Tech geeks are now cool and, incredibly, many nine-year-olds have their own computer (of some sort). This is where that incredible journey began. A study in the rapidity of obsolescence and the speed of technological change, the TNMOC is to be applauded for preserving these pioneers of personal computing.

The heyday of British home computing in the 1980s is on display at The National Museum of Computing on the Bletchley Park Estate until June 30 2020.


The National Museum of Computing

Bletchley, Buckinghamshire

The National Museum of Computing, located at Bletchley Park, is an independent charity housing the largest collection of functional historic computers in Europe, including a rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer and the WITCH, the world's oldest working digital computer. The Museum enables visitors to follow the development of…

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