On the 1980s home computing boom

Maybe interesting in context, a video by the Centre for Computer History, regarding a PHD thesis on the subject:

Dr David Skinner - “Computers could have been different.” - 1980s Home Computing Boom

(A useful term found here may be “self referential computing”. Personally I also found the association of specific brands and moral values quite interesting – something mostly forgotten today, but may be encountered again in the so-called console wars –, and that the home computer may be best defined by the “home computer boom” as a public event. The latter one is obviously a bit self referential, as well, but it might be the best definition.)

Edit: Regarding moral aspects, hobbyist computing was sometimes regarded as some kind of a legal drug. E.g., at my school, there was a voluntary class on data processing/computing and when I became interested in this, I was only allowed to go there after some warnings regarding other students actually having become lost over obsessive devotion to the subject and some admonitions regarding having an eye on this. (And in deed, this notion wasn’t that different from Stewart Brand’s reaction to seeing Spacewar! in 1962, “they’ve invented someting better than drugs”.)

And this is the paper mentioned at the end of the video (sadly, behind a paywall, so we’ll never know the definition provided there and what it was all about):
Leslie Haddon, David Skinner. The Enigma of the Micro: Lessons from the British Home Computer Boom (1991)

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The paper doesn’t really have a definition beyond what has already been said in the video - it is an interesting read although only tangentially related to the original ‘History Problem’ question. I thought pointing out the “self referential” idea was useful, that in the early days people used computers purely for the sake of using and experimenting with computers, rather than as a platform for running software (either their own or commercial.)

In the journal article Dr Skinner & Dr Haddon indicate a boundary (albeit a rather fuzzy one) between hobbyist computing, with the Altair in the US and the Nascom 1 in the UK, and the advent of home computing with the arrival of the ZX80 in the UK.

The article (as does the interview) refers to owners of home computers also wanting to find out what the computer is for - [quote:] As one interviewee noted: “We haven’t really come across any uses for it. I’m not sure there are many uses for it apart from games. Perhaps you can enlighten me? I certainly wouldn’t want to put my home finances on it. It’s quicker to do it on a cheque book stub, isn’t it.” [end quote]

It was interesting to hear Dr Skinner talk about this history and in particular some of the social aspects.


Another good quote from the paper (sci-hub is so useful):

In practice, the micro has been and remains a constantly changing product: changing as a technology, changing in terms of how it is understood by the culture in which it is situated, and changing in the way that it is perceived and used by individuals.

I will now have a proper read of the article and watch the video!

[I’ve pulled this sub-discussion out of the original thread as the topic had drifted quite a bit]

Skinner & Haddon draw a couple of interesting distinctions between UK and US: on the one hand, the UK household having less money to spend, and on the other hand the UK household being less keen on video consoles and therefore sticking with computers to a greater degree. (There are of course even more than two viewpoints to be had, and rather more than two countries in the world.)

Another video, a talk giving a British-side view of the 80s computer boom:

Tom Lean tells the story of the people who made the boom happen, the inventors and entrepreneurs like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar seeking new markets, bedroom programmers and computer hackers, and the millions of everyday folk who bought into the electronic dream and let the computer into their lives.

Tom is the author of ‘Electronic Dreams - How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer’

One of the pecularities of the UK was that it was the only country, where home computing wasn’t just a middle class thing, developing a quite singular field of “blue collar computing”. *)
I’m always a bit split in opinions about Sinclair: On the one hand, the machines were just a bit too cheap (compare what Acorn could do with the Atom for £120) or may have been introduced just a bit too early for the respective specs, arguably tying the entire industry to the lower end of the technology available (e.g., a number of machines had been designed for a bit higher specs, but were cut down to compete with Sinclair’s, often losing a more regular keyboard in the process), on the other hand, it created a quite singular social phenomenon, which is certainly not without merits. – One way or the other, it would have been quite a different computing landscape without Sinclair.

*) “It’s behind you” by Bob Pape about the development of the Spectrum version of the game R-Type may provide some insight in the scene. The book is available as a free download at http://bizzley.com .
It’s probably this style of producing programs what facilitated the high turnover rate of the British games market.


I am often amused at the significance of what country you were in. In South African you either had a Spectrum or a Commodore… later on that moved to Amiga or PC. Acorn only arrived with the Archimedes range but it was priced out of the market. BBC machines didn’t make their way - from the information, it looks like the BBC didn’t leave the UK.

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I believe, the BBC micro was available in Germany (I’ve seen a few ads), but only late in its lifespan and it wasn’t a significant success (Germany being at that time for the most established Commodore territory with some intermingled nests of resistance of CPC/Schneider users). There may have been other countries, as well.

It’s interesting that British manufacturers weren’t that interested in exports. But those who did go to say, France or Spain, did so with remarkable success.

(However, it must be said that regulations were quite odd at times. E.g., in Austria, any imports had to go through the hands of a “general importer” who wouldn’t only act as a central point of service and liabilities, but would also add his own premium and might have a word on marketing as well. I can understand that this wasn’t to everybody’s taste. Also, you had to pass local certifications each time you went to another country.)

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