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The history of home computing: 1982 - 2012

How the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro influenced the computers we use today

Computers are now so central to our lives that they rank alongside cookers, fridges, and telephones as essential items in any home. We use them at work, interact with them on our commutes - either via train ticket machines or even the computers that now manage the entertainment systems in our cars - and when the work day is over we relax by surfing the web, playing games on a console, or catching up on our favourite shows via services such as iPlayer or recorded programmes on a PVR.

Thanks to the marvels of the internet, the world is now available to us in the comfort of our living rooms and its chosen vessel is the computer. Televisions now plug into the web, as do internet radios, Blu-ray players and even central heating systems.
Smartphones talk to computers on the internet, and more recently our phones talk back to us when we ask questions. Technology is embedded into the very fabric of modern living. But it wasn’t always this way…

Thirty years ago the idea of having a PC in your house was a pretty strange one. The early 1980s was the age of the mainframe - huge room-filling computers that needed to be kept in temperature-controlled environments and have trained professionals to operate them. See also: UK home computing timeline.

Indeed IBM chairman Thomas Watson famously proclaimed a few years previously, ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’, while Popular Mechanics magazine had also speculated that ‘Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes’. That prediction, of course, turned out to be true but the headline would have been considerably different had the writers foreseen just how small they'd become.

It was the rise of the microprocessor in the 1970s that began to change everything. Prior to this, computer circuits would have their copious amounts of transistors soldered on individually, which was time consuming, costly and, due to the distance the signals had to travel, limited the computational speed. Replacing these boards with a single chip - one that could be mass produced - paved the way for smaller, faster machines that would eventually find their way into our homes.

The first models were only for the truly dedicated. They came in kit-form and required the user to be a dab hand with a soldering iron. Probably the most significant of these was the Altair 8800 which appeared in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine.

Altair 8800

As a machine it was unremarkable. It had no keyboard: just a row of toggle switches which the user laboriously used to input programs, and the display was merely a couple of rows of LEDs, which flashed in a manner akin to a 1950s sci-fi movie. What made the Altair important, and guaranteed its place in history, was the fact that it inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen to write a BASIC interpreter called Altair BASIC, which became Microsoft’s first product.

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