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In the early days of computers, I think computers were generally just called "computers". They occupied air-conditioned rooms with raised floors and were typically the size of several large (modern) refrigerators. The main long-term storage medium was magnetic tape. That required so-called "operators" to run the computer from the main console and load and unload the tapes. Computers usually had a main control panel with lights and switches so that values could be manually entered. Tapes and flashing lights had the advantage of being photogenic, hence all those science-fiction movies and TV programs with...flashing lights and spinning tape drives. Eventually, these would be called mainframes, although originally the term just referred to the rack containing the CPU itself, the "main frame".
Today, at the highest end, we have huge datacenters bigger than city blocks. With the highest end of all, the supercomputers, some effort seems to go into making them photogenic. Here's Summit, until a week or two ago, the #1 highest-performance computer in the world (IBM and NVIDIA based):
And here is Fugaku, the newest #1 highest-performance computer in the world (Fujitsu Arm based). For more details on this, see my post from last week, Japanese Arm-Powered Supercomputer Takes the TOP500 Crown.
Alongside these big computers, there were small computers. These were originally generically called "home computers" since they were targeted at hobbyists and weren't really powerful enough for business. That changed with the Apple II, which was always a "home computer" except that it had one attribute that no other computer at the time possessed—it could run the first spreadsheet. For the story of how people working in business would spend $2000 to run a single program that cost just $100, see my post 40 Years Ago, "Spreadsheet" Didn't Mean Excel, It Meant VisiCalc.
This is all a preamble to the fact that I've just discovered a wonderful MIT Press book Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation. The text is by Alex Wiltshire, but the thing that makes the book so stunning is the photography by John Short. To my mind, even more surprising, is that the book, at over 250 pages, is just $27. If you click on the image of the cover and zoom in, you can see a list of the 100 computers that are photographed and described.
The book starts with a computer I knew nothing about, developed by Claude Shannon, he of Information Theory fame. This is the SDC601. Hobbyists liked it at $85 but businesses were not keen until they made the case grey instead of light blue, added a few cables, and put the price up to $479. As the book says:
Now not so toy-like, it sold in its hundreds.
Now not so toy-like, it sold in its hundreds.
The second computer is the one that is usually described as the "first home computer", the Altair 8800B. This is the one for which Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the Basic interpreter. You can read more about the Altair in my post The Intel Museum (and, of course, you can see one if you visit).
The next section is the three computers released in 1977 that sparked a revolution. These are the Radio Shack TRS-80 I (cost $400), the Commodore Pet 2001 (cost $795), and most famous of all, the Apple II (cost $1298).
By the way, each computer in the book has a sidebar down the left-hand side of the page giving the manufacturer, month of introduction, some technical data (processor, clock frequency, RAM), and which country it was from. Here's an example:
I won't cover all the home computers, you'll be glad to know. In the middle of the book is the Compaq Portable, the first "portable" computer (and only the second clone of the IBM PC). I put "portable" in quotes since it weighed 26 pounds. Here are the first two pages of four (and it really is a reddish-brown page color for this one, not my terrible photography):
I'll skip to the last three computers that all affect the computer marketplace still today.
Third from the end is the Dell 316SX. Dell revolutionized the sales channel by not having any stores, just selling direct to customers. Of course, Dell is still around (and owns EMC and VMWare).
Penultimate is the Acorn RISCPC 600. This was not really successful. It was powered by the ARM610, manufactured by VLSI Technology (where I worked at the time). It was the first computer containing an ARM (these days Arm) processor.
Finally, the Apple IMAC G3, which was the first computer that Apple sold once Steve Jobs came back and he and Jonny Ive got their hands on the levers of the company. This, of course, was the beginning of Apple's return from near bankruptcy to what it is today. This was in 1998. It would be another nine years before the iPhone (with the iPod coming along in the middle and revolutionizing music).
All the computers are in the collection held by the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge (the UK one). It is a museum of computing that I've not visited but is definitely on my list next time I find myself in Cambridge. It got a permanent home in 2013. This is not to be confused with the National Museum of Computing, which has its home at Bletchley Park.
When I was a hobbyist, programming just for the fun of it and to teach myself how to do it, there were no home computers. There were only the room-sized computers with operators. It was 1968. I believe that the first computer I ever programmed was an ICT 1904 at Cheltenham Technical College. Our school managed to get some time there occasionally. It was still also the age when photographs were either 35mm transparencies or black and white prints. This is a typical picture, focusing on the tape drives with the boring cabinet that contained the actual computer out-of-frame.
To add a bit of confusion, also in 1968 ICT changed its name to ICL, when it merged with Elliott Automation and English-Electric-Leo-Marconi, two other British computer manufacturers. So they renamed those ICT 190x computers to ICL 190x (and changed the front plates). In addition to the ICL 1900 at Cheltenham, my school managed to scrounge time from ICL themselves, who would let us mail (postal mail, email didn't exist) paper tapes to their London HQ. They would run the programs and mail the printouts back, a cycle that they would let us do once per week. We also, through somebody's father's connections, I think, got some time on the ICT machine at one of the local RAF (Royal Air Force) bases. I got to be the operator who had to go two evenings a week, run everyone's programs on paper tape, and bring back the printouts off the line-printer.
So my "you young people today" moment is that I used to have to use the postal service to get one debugging run per week, now you can just pull your smartphone out of your pocket. And, it goes without saying, a modern smartphone is a zillion times more powerful than those ICL 1900s, my "home computer" of the era.
Two of the computers in the Home Computers book were the Acorn BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum. These were two British companies that were very early into the home computer market. They are linked through Chris Curry, who worked for Sinclair for 14 years and then was one of the co-founders of Acorn. The story of their competition was dramatized in the BBC-produced Micro Men. Some of the actors look disturbingly like the people they are playing really did back then...and Chris Curry is somewhat disturbingly played by Martin Freeman, who also plays Tim Canterbury, the "nice guy" in the British version of The Office (apparently the equivalent of Jim Halpert in the US version).
If you read my two posts about the recent Wheeler Lecture (the first is Sophie Wilson: The 2020 Wheeler Lecture) and you also watched Micro Men then you get extra points for spotting that Sophie had a cameo part as the bartender near the beginning and right at the end.
I also recommend this interview with Chris Curry with the self-explanatory title Chris Curry talks about Clive Sinclair, Sinclair Radionics and Acorn Computers (nearly an hour long, but engrossing):
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