Vintage computers inspire next generation of scientists

Spectrum running Twitter

From: BBC News

More than 2000 retro-computing fans descended on Bletchley Park last weekend as The National Museum of Computing hosted Britain’s first Vintage Computer Festival.

Bletchley Park is best remembered as the main centre of Britain’s World War II code-breaking efforts, in which pioneering electronic, digital computers played a vital role.

More details also available at http://www.tnmoc.org/vcf-gb.aspx. Hopefully this will become an annual event.


A further report also appeared on TheRegister.co.uk:

The Year 2000 (from 1980 - zx81)

Photo Diary Britain’s first Vintage Computing Festival took place over the weekend at Bletchley Park, which was the perfect excuse to visit the National Museum of Computing, a recent addition to the Park site. All three are a tribute to the passion of volunteers – the state has only very recently saw fit to give any money to the historic site, and the Museum is a private venture.

The National Museum of Computing shows what can be achieved with enthusiasm and dedication. It’s nothing short of a scandal that while millions were spent on public relations consultants, or huge white elephants of arts centres, no money could be found for preserving the UK’s computing history.

Or perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. It’s better placed to survive the cuts, it’s better to have knowledgeable enthusiasts in charge, rather than some leisure marketing consultant, and funds go on valuable exhibits, not funding applications.

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Request for your computer memories!

As you can see from earlier posts this site has a number of aims but its primary focus was to provide an opportunity for students to complete ICT historical research. My feeling was that quite often students are left cover work that is either mundane in the extreme or simply not particularly interesting.

ZX Spectrum 48kb

With this site we’re trying to gather memories of current teachers or other individuals about their use of computers when they were younger. This could be the use of BBCs at school or programming the ZX Spectrum 48kb. This was real programming and students today simply don’t have such opportunities.

The hope is that we can build up a bank of personal reflections that students can then use for research into the history of ICT.

If you’re willing please contact me via Twitter @andyfield. Full ‘ICT histories’ (not the best term – I agree) can be submitting the form below. If you’re willing I’ll then turn them into posts that students can use for their research:

(Had to remove the contact form due to spam but please do contact me via Twitter)

If you have any questions, do leave a comment. Comments will be added to the bottom of this post, whereas ICT memories will be used to form new posts.

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BBC Electric dreams

An excellent BBC series that takes a family back to the 1970s and illustrates all the ‘developments’ in technologies as they spend one day in each year.

The related BBC website offers a useful interactive timeline feature where you can navigate through the signficant developments and discover images, brief video clips, information and additional details. Well worth exploring for some ICT history. An excellent resource in its own right as well as a companion to the interesting TV programme.



Computer memories: Alan Parkinson

At my Comprehensive School in the late 70’s, we had a Chemistry teacher called ‘Doc’ Humphries, and at the back of his teaching lab was a locked cabinet which contained my first ‘real’ computer: an Apple II, which presumably cost a great deal of money. At the end of the school day, as often as possible, I would sit at the computer alone and as the cleaners came and did their jobs, I would type in lines of code, patiently creating classics like the Lemonade Stall game (not much call for those in Rotherham) I would be kicked out by the caretaker locking up.

Apple II

Apple II

In 1979, I started my ‘O’ level in Computer Science, and in addition to the theory on AND, NOT OR, logic gates and the internal workings of a hard drive, we needed some “hands on” keyboard time, so that we could learn the basics of Basic. Every week, on Wednesday afternoon, we would catch an ancient double-decker bus, retired from the set of ‘On the Buses’ by the look of it, and make the journey to a local college which had a mobile classroom with Research Machines computers. Black screens and flashing cursors, and slow progress ! The machines were networked in some way but I can remember more about the frequent indigestion of the teacher than the intricacies of the operating system.

I also made a monthly trip to a GT newsagent in an alley off Fargate in the centre of Sheffield, which sold exotic magazines (no, not that type) from around the world. I would spend an inordinately large sum of money each month on copies of OMNI magazine. This was published in America, and featured science fiction short stories alongside imaginings of future worlds. I read, and reread them…

I still have a folder of clippings from these magazines, and was really pleased to see a website which had images of them. I particularly remember this cover:



It was in 1980 that I saw this very print ad while returning from a coach trip to London to the Science Museum, and later that year, took delivery of a shiny white ZX80, with rubberised “keyboard” membrane, and various connections. I used the tape recorder which had previously been used to record the Top 40 from the radio to load and save programmes, which I copied from a book (which had quite a few errors as I discovered) It had 1Kb of RAM, and 4Kb of ROM. My current laptop has 4Gb of RAM !

zx80 advertisement

zx80 advertisement - click to enlarge

There was no sound, and the computer had integer basic: 10 divided by 4 was 2, as was 9 divided by 4 – it only dealt in whole numbers. If the volume settings on the tape were not correct, you could spend 25 minutes listening to the squeals of the tape only to discover that it hadn’t loaded… And of course, when you switched the computer off, everything you had done was lost as there was no memory. But what else was a young boy to do.

My brother had a ZX81, which was much better, and also had a 16K memory pack on the back. Luxury – even if you did have to be very careful not to move it or you’d crash the machine. The keyboard was slightly better than on the ZX80 too.
As an undergraduate I had access to a mainframe which filled a whole room. Using this necessitated the creation of a ‘batch’ of cards: a stack of punched cards, each of which represented one line in a program of instructions. To produce a basic line map representing the shape of a county would involve the production of hundreds of cards, and if even one was incorrect, the whole batch would be stopped, and another day would be gone. The batch was punched individually, then wrapped with a rubber band and dropped into a tray. The “program” was run overnight, and the next day, if you were lucky, you would find a print out on computer paper with the answer to a data run, or perhaps a crude map.

By now I had a ZX Spectrum, and was amazed with the colour and graphics. I remember playing Knight Lore until 3 in the morning instead of getting on with my work – there are Flash based versions of this online now, and it’s an incredibly frustrating game. BBC Micros were appearing in the computer rooms, and I programmed a “software suite” to handle and visualise weather data. I gained an ‘A’ in Computer Science for that, as well as learning a bit of Pascal.

About the time I started my PGCE course, with Computer Studies as my second subject (Geography of course being my degree) I had an Amstrad PCW 8256, with its Locomotive script and dot matrix printer, which must have churned out 40 000 pages by the time I traded up to my first real PC.

And now, my daughter gets frustrated at the time her DS games take to appear once she puts in the game cartridge…

NB: All reasonable offers considered for the items described above, most of which are in my parents’ loft.

Alan Parkinson
Secondary Curriculum Development Leader
Geographical Association

Image credits:
Apple II: Wikimedia Commons
Omni Magazine Cover: http://www.omnimagonline.com/
ZX80 Print ad and image of computer: http://oldcomputers.net/pics/ZX80-ad.jpg


Computer memories: Doug Belshaw

The full version of this ‘ICT history’ can be found on Doug’s blog.

BBC Micro

My Dad was Deputy Head of the high school (13-18) I eventually attended. I can remember him bringing back a BBC Micro that must have cost the school a fair chunk of cash. Given that the BBC Micro was discontinued in 1986, it couldn’t have been long after that he started bringing it home in the school holidays. I can distinctly remember having to type in lines and lines of code to play a game called Duck Hunt. There was no way for me to save it once I’d programmed it in, so there was more typing than playing going on! I don’t think it was exactly the same as this version for the Nintendo NES, but it was similar…

My Dad also brought an Acorn Computer back once, but as we had no games for it, we (my younger sister and I), didn’t really use it.

Nintendo NES

I was never allowed to have a games console, my parents being of the belief (quite rightly) that I’d just spend my life playing video games. One of my friends who I only saw outside of school time had a Nintendo Entertainment System, which was legendary – Super Mario and the like made me a frequent visitor to his house!

Amiga 600

As my birthday is very close to Christmas, I was in the fortunate situation of being able to combine the money that would be spent on present for me to get one ‘big’ present. Given that the Amiga 600, according to Wikipedia, went into production in 1992 and was discontinued in 1993, I must have received it for birthday/Christmas 1992. As a 12-year-old, I can remember going to Canterbury when we were on a family holiday and my parents buying Lemmings and Kick Off 2 for me. Although, theoretically, the Amiga 600 was a computer and a games console, I never did anything other than play games on it! ;-)

Sega Megadrive

Sonic the Hedgehog
Image via Wikipedia

Whilst I had my Amiga 600, another friend had a Sega Megadrive. This was my first experience of Sonic the Hedgehog and I found the graphics on it amazing – especially when the 32X add-on was released!

Compaq Presario Pentium 75

My Dad had brought home his 486DX-powered PC during the holidays during 1994 and 1995. It was upon this that I learned how to touch-type with a version of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing that came free on the front of a magazine. Then – and I’m not sure how I managed to do this – I persuaded my parents to spend £1,500 in Bainbridges (now John Lewis) on a Pentium 75-powered PC. I think I promised that it would not only be a combined birthday and Christmas present for 1995, but for 1996 and 1997 as well!

I can remember playing Sim City 2000 and especially, the Secret of Monkey Island on this machine. My sister and I would return from school and be straight on the PC trying to figure out the next puzzle! I also had Sensible Soccer, a flight simulator, and some other games.

It was with this machine, however, and Windows 95 that I began to use the PC as a computer rather than a console. Before Freeserve, you had a choice between paying Compuserve or AOL around £15 per month on top of dial-up charges to access the Internet. My PC had a 28.8kbps modem – twice the speed of the previous 14.4kbps standard.

There was no way that my parents were going to pay this to allow me access to a resource they didn’t see as necessary to my education. I tried and tried and tried to persuade them, but when they didn’t agree I decided to take matters into my own hands. I used my Dad’s credit card to sign up for a 30-day Compuserve trial, and then used the Internet when my parents were not using the phone. This, of course, was slightly dangerous as, if they’d picked up the phone when I was online, they would have been able to hear the giveaway noises. I had to go to a phone box and pretend to be my Dad after about 29 days to cancel my (his!) Compuserve account, and make sure I wasn’t connected for longer than an hour. Billing was only itemised for calls over 60 pence, you see…

In 1997, as a 16-year-old, I was getting a bit fed-up of Windows 95. I’d read about Open Source Software and Linux in particular. Although by now I had a 56kbps modem and my parents allowed me online via Freeserve, downloading anything substantial over this connection speed was painful. I bought a book with a title something like Teach yourself Red Hat Linux in 24 hours. Despite the book that came with it, I couldn’t get Linux to work properly on my PC.

[Continues further on Doug’s blog]

Doug Belshaw


Computer memories: Nick Francis

My first computer memories were two fold.

Mr Ee!

Mr Ee!

In school – J3 (as we were called then), we were given the opportunity of using the brand spanking new BBC micros, educational applications like Logo and the odd game or two that were knocking around at the time. One specific game which came to be the class favourite was ‘Mr. EE’. It was something about the dazzling (ahem…) graphics or the catchy (Cancan) music which just became addictive amongst us.

So addictive in fact, that most of us never got a look-in. However, that changed ….. one particular dismal British afternoon, I remember going completely against character, up to the Headmasters’ room, where all the software was kept and very carefully removing Mr. EE from the polycarbonate storage container and sneakily making my way back to the classroom.

This is where my memory fades, I’m pretty positive I made it back to the class and even had perhaps one/two attempts at the game, in fact I think I was pretty useless. The reality that I had ‘broken-in’ to the Headmasters’ office hadn’t really hit me, in my mind I was walking on air!

I do remember a stern teacher and a return trip to the Heads’ office with my head in my hands. What was I thinking?


On the home front, it was sometime later that I received my own, first personal computer…… I remember thinking it’s a C64! It’s a C64! which was the more popular, more expensive model at the time. I eventually unwrapped a VIC 20, which looking back at it, didn’t really phase me, I was just glad to have a Computer! (pupils of today take note!) The next week consisted of me playing one game, ‘Hunchback’ on a black & white portable that I had inherited from my father and trying to get another game to work, which never did 🙁

Vic-20 boot screen

Vic-20 boot screen

Looking back, it’s amazing that I never seemed to lose my temper with this machine, it constantly came up with ‘Syntax error at line 24’ etc, it took ages to load a game which by today’s standards is basic, yet there was something utterly fantastic about that machine, my first tentative steps into a world in which I now take computers completely for granted, demanding they perform billions of calculations every day …… my how times have changed!

Nick’s suggested links for further research:

Nick Francis

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Computer memories: Russel Tarr

My first computer memory consists of my dad showing me (when I was about 9, I guess) a very flash (as in “bling” rather than “Macromedia”) digital watch. This was a chunky gold-plated monstrosity which lay so heavily upon his right wrist that he needed to use his left hand to lift it up and show it off. Not only that, but you had to press a button on its side to light up the red LED display of the time because it used so much battery power that it would otherwise last about seven seconds before dying out.


My second memory is of the time I was sent to the local supermarket to get my dad some cigarettes and, instead of typing the price into the cash till, the John Player Specials were simply “swiped” across a Star-Wars type laser and the bar code did all the work. Then, before I had time to take this in, my junior school purchased a Commodore PET with a breathtaking 3K of RAM, around which a whole “computer club” would gather every Thursday evening. Since then, I have never lost my sense of bewilderment at the wonders of technology: which is why I avoid trying to think about it (or anything else) too much. For example – the fact that my mobile phone can pick up a call from anybody, anywhere in the world, implies to me that at any given second of the day I have an infinite number of conversations whizzing around my head. That’s just too weird.


Anyway, to get to real computers, like many people of my generation my first experience of a home computer was the legendary Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which I retain so much affection for that I just this week bought one on Ebay to frame and stick in my work room (at the time of writing it hasn’t even arrived yet). I remember the sense of shock and awe I got from typing in my first line of code (copied from the manual) which drew an arc on my television screen (“Circle: 0, 40, 60” or something like that). From that point on, it was a slippery slope: an invoicing system for my dad’s roofing business, a “rummy” card game simulator for my nan, and before you knew it I was drinking black coffee and practicing the dark arts of Z80 machine code with my own version of the game “Gauntlet” – which if I remember was like Pacman, except the ghosts were a bit more clever.


The result was playground divisions of the first magnitude. Forget Montagues and Capulets, or Mods and Rockers: you were either Spectrum 48, Commodore 64, or a pitiable nonentity who insisted that an Acorn or an Amstrad was in the same league. Many bitter arguments ensued – both at school and on the TV show “Micro Live” – about whether the superior “sprites” of the Commodore outweighed the crisper sound of the Spectrum (the fact that the “48” actually had more RAM than the “64” was a truism that both sides silently accepted). My loyalties, I am proud to say, never wavered – although they came close when Clive Sinclair himself invented a zany electrically powered personal vehicle called the C5 (what was the matter with the man? This was the 1980s, there was still plenty of fossil fuels left to burn!).


Lunar Jetman


Knight Lore

The phase of my life which was characterized by endless hours loading (and even occasionally playing) Manic Miner, Chuckie Egg, Lunar Jetman, 3D Deathchase, Psst! and Knight Law came to a very abrupt end when my brother stuck an AC power cable into the wrong hole in the back of the computer and blew the bloody thing up. From that point I did not use a computer until I was compulsorily obliged to learn word processing as part of my teacher training course. But from the moment I printed off my first essay and saw how professional it looked, I was transported back into geek heaven and have never looked back (and never, of course, had the social confidence to look anyone straight in the eye, either).

Russel Tarr


Computer memories: Mary Cooch

My first memories are having a BBC B (I think!) as I began my PGCE year and being rather unimpressed with what it would do for me – my then O/H spend forever playing games and creating little programs on it (he was used to FORTRAN and felt Basic was a bit – basic!) But when I went to my first placement school I became an immediate star when I was able to generate automatic wordsearch sheets from a list of inputted words, courtesy of his efforts. They’d all been used to handwriting them laboriously and the sheer speed and technology of having a wordsearch on this fancy dot-matrix printer paper blew their minds! Also mind blowing but in a rather negative way was the horrendous screech of the cassette player as it took forever to store your work. It is as ingrained in my mind as the dial-up modem sound of the late 90s.


When I began as an NQT, and not having much money, we did a really Bad thing and sneaked our next model down a back street where we paid a significant amount of money to a man to put us in a chip with View, BBC’s word processing program. We had discussions about ROM and sideways RAM and I was delighted because now I could have Bold, Italic or even both on my dot matrix worksheets!

We went round to a friend’s house to look at his computer – can’t even remember what it was now – but he was very much into it and talked about how there was a thing called a modem and if you attached it to your phone you could connect with other computers around the world, although he wasn’t quite sure what you might do once you had connected….

Mary Cooch

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Computer memories: Dave Stacey

We had a ZX Spectrum when I was young. And not just any old ZX Spectrum. This was the ZX Spectrum + and it had a whole 48k of RAM.


Well, it sounded impressive at the time.

To play anything you had to load the programmes from cassette tape, but there was no built in player. Instead you had to attach a standard tape player to the computer and ensure that the volume control was just at the right level (my Mum tippexed an arrow on ours). When you hit play this unearthly noise would echo around the lounge for however long it took for the game to load. If you’ve never heard a Spectrum loading up go and find the sound online. It’s one of those sounds that I suspect may be completely impossible to describe in words.

Of course, as well as playing games that someone else had written, you could programme your Spectrum to do amazing things. Like repeating words infinitely down the screen or (if you were willing to spend several hours on this) creating shapes that filled the screen. The one drawback was that could couldn’t save any of the work you’d programmed, so once it was done, and everyone had been invited in to watch the word ‘bum’ scrolling repeatedly down your tele, you switched it off and lost it all. Actually there was a second drawback. The Spectrum wasn’t the most reliable machine in the world. If someone knocked it as they were walking past, or the ball game at the other end of the lounge got a little out of hand and the soft spongy ball would roll over the keys, (or, seemingly when someone in the kitchen sneezed), the whole thing would reboot. And all your work thus far would be lost.

It’s probably no surprise that it took me another ten years and a move to University before I would have anything at all to do with any kind of computer programming.

Once the Spectrum had gone off to the great electronics shop in the sky, our next computer was a BBC Micro. I can’t quite remember how we ended up with it, but I think it might have been one that my Mum’s school felt was past it’s usefulness, but my Mum felt could still be put to good use entertaining me and  my siblings. By now of course, computers had come on leaps and bounds. This had a whole 128k of RAM and sported a floppy disk drive which not only loaded programmes, but let you save things as well. And these were real floppy disks, that really were floppy. I always thought the later, smaller, evidently non-floppy floppy disks really should have been called something else. Rigid disks probably wouldn’t have caught on in quite the same way…


I don’t remember many games for either the Spectrum or the BBC. I remember one for the spectrum having some really annoying intro music, a full listenable copy of which was included on the tape along with the game. I remember Chucky Egg and Sink the Bismark for the BBC. But what I remember more than any of that was being useless at the games (I still am rubbish at computer games) and getting easily bored and frustrated by the whole thing. I never ‘got’ how my friends could spend hours with their Amigas and their Commodore 64s.

Ironic I suppose given that now anything geeky is right up my street!

Dave Stacey

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Computer memories: Andrew Field


The first computer I can remember using was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48kb in around 1982 / 83. My sister was given one for Christmas – it came with a few games and some programming manuals. It seemed amazing clever at the time.

At school at the time there was one computer lab with BBC Micros. I remember being shown the lab, but being too young to be allowed in it properly 🙁

Later on I was taught how to make a graphic move across the screen on a BBC. I still remember the lesson. There was a real sense of achievement in getting a white character to move across the screen.

I subsequently inherited my sister’s computer and was bought a printer for it. It wasn’t very powerful at all, but seemed really impressive when I was little. I remember creating a quiz program to help my sister revise her A-Level history.


A few years later moved to a Spectrum 128k +2, a more powerful version of the Spectrum. My Mum and Dad also purchased a PCW 9512 – a dedicated wordprocessor. I used that to write a program that did my GCSE Maths coursework on quadratic equations for me.

However, my favourite computer when I was younger was the Amiga 500. This offered some great features – an impressive mixture of graphics, office-type tools, programming and games. I even wrote a few games using a program called ‘AMOS Professional’. I tried to buy an Amiga 1200 but we weren’t able to as this was the time Commodore went bust.


Since then I drifted into PCs having used them in the later years of secondary school and in earnest at University. One of my courses at university was even called “Computing for Historians” – it was much more interesting than the title and associated book suggest.

What’s your computer history?

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