The first true computers were only built around the 1940s, and the progress of the computer since that time is undoubtedly one of the most important technological stories of the 20th century.
The computer revolution was made possible by microchips – microscopically small components etched into strips of the element silicon.
These microchips were invented in 1959 by American Jack Kilby and first made in the 1960s.
These days they are present everywhere – from toasters to toys, and from car engines to cookers. And computers are a part of everyday life.
Computer wars loomed large in the early 80s. There was no such thing as a “standard” – not like today (ahem!). Before Windows XP and the iMac were conceived, millions of man-hours were wasted by schoolchildren in a vain attempt to key in a BASIC program from Sinclair users or to load games such as ‘Manic Miner’ and ‘Atic Atac’.
In 1981, IBM launched its Personal Computer (or PC). IBM asked Intel to produce the all-important microchip, and the software house Microsoft to write the operating system software (MS-DOS).
IBM’s name on the computer (rather than that of its smaller rivals Altair and Apple) gave buyers confidence in their PCs. It was also the first time computers had been affordable for personal use, and PCs became a best-seller. In 1984, IBM was selling more than 3 million PCs a year when Apple launched a radical new machine – the Macintosh.
A mouse pointing device made the Macintosh much easier to use, and files were represented graphically on the screen as little icons instead of the long lists of words in MS-DOS. Microsoft ultimately responded by creating Windows, which had a similar look and feel.
Following are some of the contenders and pretenders of the early PC revolution.
- Amstrad: CPC464 (A cross between a Speccy and a C64 – with its own monitor and tape recorder!)
- Atari: Atari 400/800
- BBC: Micro
- Commodore 64
- Jupiter Ace: A potentially brilliant computer that could have been very successful if only it had a colour display. (Like nearly all the other small computers being launched at the time.)
- Oric computers: The Oric1 and Oric Atmos – The French equivalent of the Spectrum.
- Spectrum: The Speccy ZX80 and ZX81 are still much loved of computer enthusiasts who played their first game in the early 80s. And it was truly amazing in retrospect how many games you could fit onto a C90 tape. The keyboard was one of those flat rubber things without buttons per se. So you would press a letter for ages with no results and then a ream of the same letter would run across the screen.
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