Issue #64: Retrocomputing,  Library

Alex Wiltshire & John Short

Last September, we reviewed our first “coffee table book”: a precious and unwieldy volume by Taschen called “The Computer”, written by Jens Müller and Julius Wiedemann. At the end of that article, we mentioned another coffee table book, and it is about time we talk about it in detail. This month’s Library entry is, then, “Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation” by Alex Wiltshire, featuring photographs by John Short, published by MIT Press in 2020.

“Home Computers” features some of the computers in the collection of The Centre for Computing History at Cambridge, United Kingdom. We find the usual suspects that one might expect: the Altair 8800b, the IBM 5150, the BBC Micro, the Apple Macintosh, the NeXT Computer, the Compaq portable, the Commodore 64, the Commodore Amiga A-500 Plus, and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Fair enough. But there are many other names that do not ring any bell at all in 2024: SDC, Intertec, Thomson, Oric, or Robotron. Bonus points if you used one of those computers when you were a kid. Some names, however, have evolved, and are still there, albeit as part of another acronym. This is the case of Acorn, whose initial letter features at the beginning of the “ARM” architecture, at the base of various power-efficient CPUs today. Some other manufacturer names are simply not (primarily, at least) associated with computers at all nowadays, such as Sharp, Casio, Canon… or even Mattel!

There are also stories about the computers that could have been but never were. This is the case of the DEC Rainbow, a computer that, despite coming from the second-biggest manufacturer in the world at the time, could not resist the market forces that raised the IBM 5150 to become “the” PC by antonomasia.

The nice thing about coffee table books is that they provide various angles of interest for different audiences. First, the historical one, which is obvious and which we will not delve into right now. Second, and much more interesting, the design angle. Because, let us be honest; some of those personal computers back then were drop-dead gorgeous. Special mentions to the Intertec Superbrain shown on the cover of the book, the all-red Matra Alice 90, the original Apple Macintosh, the Commodore PET 8032-SK, the NeXT Computer (of course!) and the Apple iMac G3, closing the book.

Granted, not all of them were as beautiful. In particular, some had seriously terrible keyboard designs. The Sharp MZ-80K, the Commodore PET 2001, and the Atari 400 stand out as sinners in this category. On the other hand, the keyboards of the Sinclair ZX80, ZX Spectrum, Didaktik M, Jupiter Cantab ACE, VTech Laser 200, and Timex Sinclair 1500 all beg the same question: where is the space bar?

The book also traces the evolution of portable computers, a category that went from downright laughable (sorry, “luggable”) to indispensable in less than 20 years. The sequence goes like this: the Osborne 1, the Compaq Portable, the Commodore SX-64 (first of its kind with a color monitor), the Cambridge Z88, the Amstrad PPC 512, the Atari Portfolio, the Atary STacy, and the Apple Macintosh Portable.

As comprehensive as this book might be, there are some glaring omissions, at least apparent to the eye of this author. Suffice to mention Tandy’s TRS 80 Model 100, featuring a portable form factor similar to the Cambridge Z88 that could probably still be a hit today; the Macintosh PowerBook 140, arguably the first true modern laptop; any Kaypro model; and the Talent MSX 2 Turbo, one of the few computer models ever produced in Argentina during the 1980s. The latter featured the distinctive MSX design, with those large colorful arrow keys on the right side of the keyboard, as seen on the Tatung Einstein 256 and the Casio MX-10 Type B featured in the book.

Another aspect that “Home Computers,” does not deal with is something that the author of these lines finds the most interesting: the software. Maybe a series of videos based on this book would be a welcome addition. But, you know, you can just download a few emulators here and there, a copy of CP/M or MS-DOS 2.x, a BASICA interpreter, and have fun.

Cover photo by the author.

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Adrian Kosmaczewski is a published writer, a trainer, and a conference speaker, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry. He holds a Master's degree in Information Technology from the University of Liverpool.