How to Collect Classic Home Computers

by Enrico Tedeschi


It might seem impossible today but prior to the late 1970s home and personal computers did not exist. Computers were big, large affairs, which filled up entire rooms in Universities, laboratories and public offices. Microprocessors (the heart of a computer) were practically nonexistent.

Then in 1969 Intel, the chip manufacturer, was commissioned by Busicom, a Japanese calculator manufacturer, to design an integrated chip for them to build a desk top calculator. Intel succeeded in putting all the functions required by this calculator  into a single chip, (the 4004) which entered production in 1971, thus beginning the microprocessor era with the first integrated circuit ever to contain all the basic necessary functions of a calculating machine.

Microprocessors (and therefore computers) need programs to run with. In 1972 Gary Kildall started writing PL/I the first programming language for the 4004 and Intel started producing a more sophisticated microprocessor: the 8008. In 1973 the magazine Radio Electronics  published an article by the now well known electronics guru Don Lancaster  describing a "TV typewriter", a kind of box of tricks to compose text electronically. It was only a fantasy but in the same year the first amateur home computer using the 8008 microprocessor (the Scelbi 8H) began to be sold to enthusiasts soon followed by the Mark-8, still based on the 8008 chip, but supplied in kit form only.

Then in 1975 the magazine Popular Electronics  published an article describing another computer kit called the Altair 8800 (named after a planet in the TV series Star Trek) made by a pocket calculator company called MITS. This started an avalanche of requests which practically led to the establishment of the personal computer culture and the success of Bill Gates and his BASIC computer language which he and his friend Pal Allen supplied to MITS.

When in 1975-6 other better microprocessors (the 6502 and the Z80) became available and their prices more affordable the first really usable home computers appeared on the market. In 1977 they were:

- The Apple II
- The Tandy TRS-80
- The Commodore Pet

They sparked a revolution that still continues today by putting a tool that was reserved to the privileged few into everybody's home and life.

In 1981 Osborne, a programmer, writer and computer consultant, produced an "all in one piece" computer: the appropriately named model I. It was really too big and heavy to be carried around but still managed to enter into history as the first portable computer ever.

In 1981, after a short struggle, the giant corporation IBM managed to put on the market their first real personal computer, the 5150, establishing a standard which dominates the world market even today. Its arch rival Apple came out with a much better product in 1982 (the Lisa) but it was too late and too expensive to fight the battle with the mainframe manufacturer giant.

Apple tried again in  1984 with the Macintosh succeeding in conquering the graphic and enthusiast market with a revolutionary machine which offered (like the Lisa) a completely different way of managing the graphic and interaction among the computer and its user.

The success of the American computer industry sparked off a surge of European manufacturers at first and Japanese later. They (the European manufacturers) came on the market with ever improving machines with ever diminishing prizes. The pioneer in this field was, of course, Sinclair Research with its MK 14 in 1978, ZX-80 in 1980, the ZX-81 in 1981 and the very successful ZX Spectrum in 1982. Sinclair came out later with another machine, the QL which, for various reasons,  did not do as well as the previous computers. The Sinclair machines were so popular that they ended up being built, under licence, in Portugal and also by Timex in USA with their models T/S 1000 (= ZX-81), T/S 1500 (= ZX-81 in a Spectrum case) and T/S 2040 (= enhanced Spectrum) plus scores of illegal clones in Russia and neighbouring countries.

In the meantime scores of other manufacturers tried (and succeeded) to enter the market and many made a remarkable job of it. In the USA Atari came out with their excellent models 400 and 800, Texas with the TI-99/4a, Commodore with the VIC 20,  Apple with the model III. In Great Britain competition was really fierce with several firms trying to combat the ZX-81 easy domination of the market, for example the Jupiter Ace and the Acorn Atom. The  Spectrum, which was really the king of the market, was opposed, among others, by  Oric  with their models I and Atmos, Commodore with model 64 and Plus4, by Camputers with the Lynx, by Sord with the M5, by Spectravideo with the xxxx, by Acorn with the Electron, by Grundy with the Newbrain and by Dragon Data with the Dragon 32 and 64.

The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) started a series of programs on TV to teach computing to home viewers and schools and initially based its model computer on the Acorn Atom design, much to the annoyance of (Sir) Clive Sinclair who thought that his project was better and more convenient.

The Japanese decided that to fight the American and European competition, they had to come up with a different (and better) standard. So they teamed up with the Dutch firm Philips for the hardware and with American Microsoft for the Software and came out with the MSX standard which failed miserably as it was too late to fight the already de-facto standards (Ms-Dos and  Macintosh OS for the office, Sinclair and Commodore for the home market).

The dramatic arrival of the Macintosh in 1984 put an end to the historical period of great excitement and developments. Many people working in the industry today will gladly admit that their first programming notions were acquired whilst trying to learn how to program on one these early home computers.


Early models
You will be very unlikely to bump into one of these as they are now very difficult to find but, if you are really serious (and you can pay for them), they are still available for sale from the appropriate sources (mainly other collectors). They are of the utmost historical importance.

Examples of this family are:

- March 1974 =  Scelbi 8H
- July 1974 = Mark 8
- January 1975 = MITS Altair 8800
- 1975 = IMSAI 8080
- 1976 = SWTPC 6800
- 1976 = Cromenco
- 1976 = The Sphere
- 1976 = Ohio Scientific
- 1976 = Processor Technology and SOL
- July 1976 = Apple I

these, at the beginning, were usually kits of experimental computers for dedicated enthusiasts with very limited functions and memory and no way of storing programs when you switched them off. Data was usually entered in them by just flicking a few switches up and down and the result judged by the lighting of a few lamps in a row.

The first REAL home computers
These were much better with proper keyboards and ways of storing data on magnetic tape:

- April 1977 = Apple II
- April 1977 = Commodore Pet
- August 1977 = Tandy TRS-80

The second wave
Soon after other manufacturers discovered the home market:

- December 1978 = Atari 400 and 800
- June 1979 = Texas Instruments 99/4a
- June 1980 = Commodore VIC 20

The "personal" machines
In the meantime "serious computers" started to appear on the market:

- September 1980 = Apple III
- April 1981 = Osborne I
- August 1981 = IBM 5150 (the PC)

The British invasion
While often "forgotten" by the superficial collector, the British home computer industry produced some remarkable examples of good design and manufacture which were vastly popular (the Spectrum alone is said to have had, at its peak, more than 5 million users !):

- 1978 = Science of Cambridge MK 14
- 1980 = Science of Cambridge ZX-80
- 1981 = Sinclair ZX-81 (and its American counterpart the T/S 1000)
- 1981 = Jupiter Ace
- 1981 = Acorn Atom
- 1981 = BBC model B
- 1982 = Sinclair Spectrum (and its American counterpart the T/S 2040)
- 1982 = Dragon 32 and 64
- 1982 = Camputers Lynx
- 1982 = Oric I
- 1982 = CBM 64 (also made in the USA and in Germany)
- 1983 = CBM Plus 4
- 1983 = Coleco Adam (USA)
- 19?? = CGL M5 (Japan)
- 1983 = Acorn Electron
- 1983 = Mattel Aquarius
- 1984 = Oric Atmos
- 1984 = Sinclair QL

The MSX standard machines
These we initially made by 5 Japanese manufacturers plus Spectravideo and the Dutch Philips (but later everybody was making one).

The GUI (Graphics Users Interface) machines
These are the ones that revolutionised the marked and led to the Mac OS and "Windows" systems still in use today:

- Apple Lisa
- Macintosh XL
- Macintosh 128K

There are, of course, many more but I have to stop somewhere and I am stopping here with the Macintosh, "the computer that changed it all".


Historical personal and home computers are still at a stage where they  are worth near to nothing. The lack of public awareness of their importance in the social and electronics history, the restriction of space in modern homes and the fact that modern programs need hundreds of times the memory found in anyone of them, makes them redundant and most people who own one will gladly give them away for nothing.

However if you are serious and don't want to just amass a whole lot of hardware which has no sense at all, you should make a plan and try to stick to it. For this you will need information. You will need to know what was made, when it was made, how, who, where, which model, how important it was at the time, how many were made, what they meant to their users at the time of their appearance on the market and the subsequent models etc.

The best source of information is from the people who where there. Because the home computer revolution happened not so long ago most of the people involved in it are still alive today and many are on the Net. Another good source of information are the magazines of the time. For the same reason as above (the relative  recent publishing date) it might not be so difficult to find some of them in your local library or University.

The trusty way to gather info is, of course, books. If I had to have only one book I would choose Fire in the Valley, by  Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine for its comprehensive quality of information and its readability. The only book I know of which is specifically targeted to collectors is A collector's guide to Personal Computers by Dr.Thomas F.Haddock, although I personally think that there is too much information lacking in there.

Another fascinating book on the early history of the home computers is Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer as seen from the inside by the man who opened the world's second computer shop.

As you would expect, the story of Apple, from its humble beginnings in a Californian garage to its extraordinary success, has caught the imagination of writers and readers alike and you will find many dedicated books on the market. One good book which managed to materialise itself also in a video (which also appeared on TV) is Accidental Empires by Robert X.Cringely.

The ongoing source of info is also the Net especially its Newsgroups and Mailing lists but be warned that among some quality information from a few individuals, there is a lot of rubbish around and you are easily likely to loose yourself in a sea of unimportant and useless babble.

Good collecting!

Copyright ©1998 Enrico Tedeschi

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