Teaching, at university, with 8 bit micros and Basic

Yes, even today (2015), teaching with Altair 8800, Amstrad PCW, and Basic - for good reasons.

From the Minimal Computing project
Old Machines Running Old Languages

The Minimal Computing Lab at the Centre for Textual Studies (CTS) at De Montfort University (Leicester, England) was created to help students of arts and humanities subjects to understand how computers work, with a special focus on how they can store and process writing.

At some point, BASIC and the Altair 8800 or the Amstrad PCW are inevitably not powerful enough for the students’ ambitions. With even a relatively short piece of text such as Chapter One of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion , a word-frequency analysis running in BASIC might take days to complete. (We can mitigate this by using our Teletype machine as the console and leaving it on all week; the results will be captured on paper even if they appear at 3am on a Tuesday, and cannot ‘scroll’ off the screen as with a VDU.)


As a college educator with a passion for old machines … this is my favorite thing that I’ve seen in a while. It looks like they’ve been doing it for half a decade or more, I’m sorry I just found out about it!


The Amstrad PCW taught me that there are many different ways to relate to computers, and importantly, many of them were just as valid as any formally correct method.

I was brought up around computers. I knew about files and organization and all the things you should do in working with computers. My partner, however, had never worked with computers and needed one to write her PhD thesis. Someone had advised her to get an Amstrad PCW, and she’d written most of the thesis on it before we were together.

One of the charming features of LocoScript on the PCW9512 was the way it used the screen character memory to play through the document as it checked the spelling. If you were a fast reader, your could use this scrolling display to proof-read your work.

For final printing, though, I’d got LocoScript for my 386 and we were going to print the 450+ pages on a DeskJet 500 and a couple of reams of Mellotex (a now-discontinued very high quality repro paper). It was certainly going to be more restful than banging out all the pages on the PCW’s painfully slow daisywheel.

Catherine wanted to do one last spell check, so we started it, and … no scrolling display! How was anyone supposed to proof-read if you didn’t get the text scrolling by as it checked? Here was an advance in technology that was counter to human expectations: a 32-bit machine that didn’t provide the utility of an 8-bit one.


(We’re still very much together, btw. I just set up a new Mac Mini M1 - several umpty million times more complex than the old PCW - for Catherine’s online college teaching.)