[I started writing this several years ago, never finished it… I put together those parts again and added a bit more. There’s some inline references to the original work and original publication around 2012 then again 2014… I really need to finish this piece but I think a different article on the “PC” era would be better… sometime…]
This is of course just my perspective and it’s probably wrong in places, but it is my perspective. So there you go. Lots of fun memories. Hope you enjoy.
I can’t possibly cover this topic in anything like a detailed way and so you may ask what I’m doing trying to write down this little paltry bit of history. Well for one thing I’m not going to be able to remember it forever and inasmuch as this is my history I’d like to record it before I forget. But that’s not usually a good enough reason for me to do anything so I should add that another reason, perhaps the main reason, is that I’m so very, very, tired of hearing other made up histories that forget so much of what happened, even fairly simple things, and that attribute important bits of progress to all the wrong people.
So while I can’t write about everything I can write about some things, some things that I saw and even experienced myself. And I hope that some of those things are interesting to others, and that they remember, too.
The first things I remember
I’m writing this on 11/1/2012 and I’m about to try to go back in time to the first relevant memory I have of this industry. I’m fairly sure it was 1975, 5th grade for me, and I picked up a book from our school library that was called “Automatic Data Processing” or maybe it was “Automated Data Processing”. I checked that book out of the library at least 3 times. I never read much of it. I’m not sure what it was doing in a grade school library. I remember one cool thing about it was that it had a little decoder chart for the unusual symbols written at the bottom of personal checks. I know that I tried to read it cover to cover but I didn’t have much success. I guess I shouldn’t be too astonished, I was only 10 years old at the time.
The reason I bring this up is that in many ways this was what computer science was like at the time. It wasn’t exactly brand new but it was perhaps the province of very large businesses and governments and there wasn’t very much that was personal about it, except for those magnetic ink markings on personal checks.
I did not know then that at about the same time in 1975 a small company called Microsoft was being founded. I did not know that Intel had produced some very interesting silicon that would herald the first microcomputer. I don’t think anyone I knew had a Pong game. I had a Brother personal electric typewriter which was a pretty cool thing to have and that was the closest to word processing that I had ever experienced. I didn’t use anything like white-out on account of I couldn’t afford it.
I was a lot more concerned about the fact that Canada was going to adopt the metric system than I was about any of these things. The computer technology on Star Trek (which I saw in reruns) and The Six Million Dollar Man seemed equally reasonable to me. I wasn’t old enough to think Erin Moran of Happy Days (Joannie) was really cute but I soon would be. That’s 1975.
People Start Experiencing Computers
If you ever saw an original MITS Altair 8800 you would be really not impressed. I mean so seriously not impressed that even McKayla Maroney could not adequately capture this level of unimpressedness (but I know someone who could :)). If I had to pick, in 1975, goofing around with an Altair and vs. playing around with a hand-wound copper armature suspended on a couple of nails to make a motor, the motor would win every time. Just a few thousand people actually experienced the Altair. Altairs did not take North America or the world by storm. In fact you could live your life just fine and not be aware of their existence at all and that is certainly where I was.
However, there were lots of things starting to become normal and even common that were foreshadowing the personal computer.
I think I first noticed it happening in watches. You remember the kind, well there were two kinds really, the first kind was the type where you had to push a button and an LED display would then tell you what time it was? This was important because of course you couldn’t have the LED display on all the time as it would run down the battery far too quickly. Which meant glancing at your watch was right out — you needed that button. I think there was a commercial where a fellow was fencing and trying to see what time it was and it wasn’t going so good because he had to push the button. I’m not sure why you would need to know what time it was while fencing but it did make the point dramatically that you had to push a button.
The other type of watch was LCD, and I suppose the fact that you can still get LCD watches today and not so much LED (but they are making a comeback as flashlights) speaks volumes. These devices had rudimentary features that allowed them to do their jobs. They were not in any way generally programmable, at least not by end-users. But groundwork was being laid. You could do an entire volume on just wearable computers.
I only knew one person with an LED watch, but I knew a lot of people that had assorted LED games. You might want to stop and think about that. We’re talking about a game here where the primary display is a few 8 segment LED clusters, the same as you found on calculators and such. These games were very ambitious indeed claiming to be things like football simulations. An Xbox 360 these are not and Madden Football was many, many, years away. But somehow the up-and-down dodge-the-barely-moving-bad-guys football experience, punctuated by the crisp sound of what had to be piezo-electric crystal powered sound was pretty impressive. As was the number of batteries you had to sacrifice to the thing. Now to be sure I never took one apart and I wouldn’t have known what a piezo-electric speaker was at the time anyway but I’d bet you a nickel those games were powered by a simple microprocessor and some ROM. They made more of a cultural dent than the Altair. And they were more accessible than say Pong, which was present but hardly ubiquitous itself.
I’ve completely glossed over calculators at this point. And maybe rightly so; even a four-function-doorstop of a calculator with no “memory” function was sufficiently expensive that you were unlikely to encounter them.
And much was I was down on the Altair, within a few years, another Intel based computing system would become much more popular — Space Invaders. Which for many of us was the first “non-pong-like game” [props if you know who I’m quoting] they ever experienced or were inspired by.
In summary, I think it’s fair to say that at this point, the late seventies, you could still be excused if you had never touched anything like a microcomputer. But that was likely to change soon.
My First Computers
I was taking an math enrichment program in junior high school and though our junior high didn’t have a computer, there was this HP minicomputer that made the rounds. I’m not sure what it was exactly but I’ve looked at some pictures and specifications and I’m pretty convinced that it was an HP Model 9830A with the thermal printer and card-reader options. We mostly fed it cards even though it had a console. The thing was at our school for an entire two weeks, and we spent the week before it arrived learning flowcharting and BASIC.
I was totally hooked. I stayed late at school every day the thing was there and then kept writing programs I couldn’t even run anywhere on paper pads the whole rest of the year. So in the 9th grade I made a major right turn career wise and I signed up for computer science classes in high school which I otherwise likely would not have done.
As I started 10th grade in the fall of 1979, I landed in a classroom that had three, count’em, Commodore PET microcomputers and one Radio-Shack TRS80. I’m not sure why the “Trash-80” was unpopular, it’s actually a formidable device in own right but for reasons lost to history the PETs were what everyone really used. I knew this was going to be a cool class when I walked in because I’d seen a PET on “The Price Is Right” so it had to be awesome. I still remember my first day looking at one of those things, the teacher had it up front and was reviewing some basic commands and I was hypnotized by the flashing cursor.
I worked on those computers at great length so I can tell you something about them and maybe something about the software eco-system they had. The “PET 2001” was powered by a 6502 processor and had 8k of RAM (with famously 7167 bytes free for you at startup), and 8k of ROM for BASIC and I/O support. Plus another 1k of RAM for video memory. The IO system was not especially complicated, like most of the era it was just memory mapped IO and it was enough to read in a keyboard, and talk to the built-in cassette tape drive. There was support for IEEE488 in the initial version but it didn’t work due to bugs, except for this one printer which included built in workarounds for the bugs. IEEE488 “actually worked” in the 2001N series.
However, even on that original 8k PET you could do some pretty cool things. The ROM included built in BASIC and so there were a variety of games and it was not that hard to make your own, and we did. I was perennially working on a version of Space Invaders and then Asteroids. It was always mostly working. There were dozens of race track style games, some even first person. There was a cool monthly digital magazine, “CURSOR” that had something new and slick every issue. I remember hacking on the model rail simulator with special zeal. There were decent chess programs, and even more, less decent chess programs available if you were willing to type them in yourself.
But what about practicality? Even that computer, such as it was, could do word processing for you. By the time I started using them, WordPro3 was already available. I think they even had features that allowed you to print while you were still making edits! Amazing! You could insert new lines where you pleased and even copy text from one place to another without requiring you to travel forward in time to the Macintosh era. In fact every microcomputer worth mentioning, with anything like a general purpose display, could do these basic functions. They certainly were not peculiar to the PET.
If you wanted high quality sound, why, naturally you would attach a breadboard with about a dozen suitably sized resistors and an OP-AMP to your parallel port and then you could mix 4 sources and enjoy high quality 8-bit digital to analog sound playback. Your experience is limited only by the quality of your resistors! Naturally your playback program included 6 bit precision wave tables for sine waves that you could sample/mix to get your four voices because none were built in. For bonus points add an FM modulator to your circuit and you could listen to it on your FM-radio at the frequency of your choice instead of attaching a speaker. Of course stereo wasn’t possible on account of there weren’t enough output pins on the parallel port for 16 bits.
Of course if you wanted to just hear some variable pitch “beeping” and make music like that, that was easier. You could just crank up the shift rate on the output port designed to be part of a UART (the CB2) and vary the shift rate according to the music. The preferred way to hear that was to attach an alligator clip to the port with electric tape on the bottom teeth so as to not short it out (because the signal was on top and connectors were far too expensive) and then connect that to a suitable speaker. This technique was popular in games because it didn’t tie up the processor shifting out waveforms.
My electronics teacher had an even simpler 6502 computer system that became the first thing I ever brought home. The KIM-1 came with an impressive array of books on the 6502 architecture, which I was especially excited about because I wanted to learn to program the PET in Machine Language (the capitals were evident when we said it) and of course they had the same microprocessor. But the really cool thing was Jim Butterfield’s “The First Book of KIM” which was simply outstanding in terms of having cool little programs that did something and taught you something.
The KIM had a display that consisted of six 7-segment LEDs. That’s it. Enough to show the address and contents of a single byte of memory in hexadecimal. On that display you could play a little pong type game, Hunt the Wumpus, navigate a star field, simulate a lunar landing, and more… if you were willing to enter the programs with the little calculator tablet. With only 1k of memory you could be on a first-name basis with every byte of your program and indeed you pretty much had to be. But then, that was the point. And the KIM’s exposed guts encouraged even more hardware hacking than the PET did, so we soon had interesting keyboards attached and more.
Still, I don’t recall ever doing anything especially practical on the device, it was a lot of elaborate playing around. It was an excellent training area and I suppose that’s what it was designed for more than anything else so I shouldn’t be surprised.
The 6502 training was useful and soon I was squeezing programs into the spare cassette buffer of the PET like a champ. Hybrid BASIC and assembly language programs were pretty common, whereas full assembly language programs often had nothing more than an enigmatic listing
The hybrids often had little SYS 826 and friends sprinkled in there. So while a working knowledge of machine language helped you to understand a few more snippets of PETTREK, really the more interesting thing you could do with it is learn a lot more about how your computer worked.
Remember the PET had only 8k of ROM, which was actually a lot compared to its cousins, but still not so much that you couldn’t disassemble every last byte and then start pretending to be the CPU starting from the reset vector. From there it wasn’t too long until you had figured that JSR $FFD2 was used to write a character and even why that worked. Those ROMs were full of great techniques…
I could spend a long time writing about programming the PET and its various entry points, and I’m likely going to spend disproportionate time on the CBM family of computers because that’s what I know, but I think it’s important to look at other aspects of microcomputers as well and so my sojourn into 6502 assembly language will have to be cut short. And anyway there’s room for programming examples elsewhere.
To make a decent microcomputer you need to solve certain supplemental problems… so this is the Peripherals edition of this mini-history.
Now here I’m really sad that I can’t talk about Apple II storage systems. But I can give you a taste of what was possible/normal in 1979. Tapes. Tapes my son, lots of tapes. Short tapes, long tapes, paper tapes, magnetic tapes, and don’t forget masking tape — more on that later.
Many computers (like the KIM) could be connected to a standard cassette player of some kind, the simplest situation just gave you some kind of connector that would provide input and output RCA jacks and you bring your own cassette player.
Paper type was also used in some cases, in those the paper tape insertion would effectively provide the equivalent of keystrokes on some TTY that was connected via say RS232 (and I say that loosely because usually it was just a couple of pins that behaved sorta like RS232 if you crossed your eyes enough). Likewise paper tape creation could be nothing more than a recording of printed output which was scientifically created so as to be also be valid input! If that sounds familiar it’s because the same trick was used to provide full screen editing on PET computers — program listings were in the same format as the input and so you could just cursor up there and edit them some and press enter again.
OK, but let’s be more specific. The PET’s tape drive could give you about 75 bytes/sec, it was really double that but programs were stored twice(!), for safety(!!), which meant that you could fit a program as big as all the available memory in a 32k PET in about 10 minutes of tape. Naturally that meant that additional tape would just create fast forward nightmares so smaller tapes (and plenty of them) became somewhat popular. I must have had a few dozen for my favorite programs. Also backups were good because it got cold in Toronto and magnetic tape was not always as robust as you might like. Plus you could rewind one with a pencil and it wouldn’t take so long, always a plus.
But the real magic of the PET’s tape was that the motor was computer controlled. So if you got a big tape with lots of programs on it, it often came with an “index” program at the front. That program would let you choose from a menu of options. When you had selected it would instruct you to hit the fast forward button (which would do nothing) and strike a key on the pet. Hitting the key would then engage the fast forward for just the right amount of time to get you to where the desired program was stored on the tape and the motor would stop! Amazing! What a time saver!
The timelines for other manufacturers is astonishingly similar, it seems everyone decided to get into the game in 1977 and things developed very much in parallel in all the ecosystems. Apple, and Radio Shack were highly harmonious schedules.
But what about disk drives, surely they were a happening thing? And indeed they were. On the Commodore side there were smart peripherals like the 2040 and 4040 dual floppy drives. Now they pretty much had to be that way because there was so little memory to work with that if you had to sacrifice even a few kilobytes to a DOS then you’d be hurting. But what smarts, here’s what you do when you insert a new floppy
open 1,8,15: Print #1, “I0”
or you could get one free command in there by doing
And then use print for new commands. To load a program by name simply do this:
and then you can run it same as always.
But how do you see what’s on your disk? Well that’s easy, the drive can return the directory in the form of a program, which you can then list
And there you have all your contents. Of course this just wiped your memory so I hope you saved what you had…
Well, ok, it was a total breakthrough from tape but it was hardly easy to use, and the directory thing was not really very acceptable. But fortunately it was possible to extend the basic interpreter… sort of. By happenstance, or maybe because it was slightly faster, the PET used a tiny bit of self-modifying code to read the next byte of input and interpret it. You could hack that code and make it do something other than just read the next byte. And so were born language extensions like the DOS helper. Now you had the power to do this:
To initialize drive zero, and,
To print the directory without actually loading it! Amazing!
Could be used instead of the usual load syntax.
From a specs perspective these 300 RPM babies apparently could do about 40 KB/s transfer internally but that slowed down when you considered the normal track-to-track seeking and the transfer over IEEE488 or else the funky serial IEEE488 of the 1541. I think if you got 8KB/s on parallel you’d be pretty happy. Each disk stored 170k!
Tapes soon gave way to floppies… and don’t forget to cover the notch with masking tape if you don’t want to accidently destroy something important. It was so easy to get the parameters backwards in the backup/duplicate command
Mean duplicate drive 1 from drive 0 but it was best remembered Destroy 1 using 0.
Suffice to say there has been a lot of innovation since that time.
It certainly wasn’t the case that you could get cheap high-quality output from a microcomputer in 1977 but you could get something. In the CBM world the 2022 and 2023 were usable from even the oldest pet computers and gave you good solid dot matrix quality output. By which I mean very loud and suitable for making output in triplicate.
Letter quality printers were much more expensive and typically not in anything like an interface that was “native” to the PET. I think other ecosystems had it better. But it didn’t matter, the PET user port plus some software and an adapter cable could be made centronics compatible or a different cable and you could fake RS232 on it. That was enough to open the door to many other printer types. Some were better than others. We had this one teletype I’ll never forget that had the temerity to mark its print speeds S/M/F for slow, medium, and fast — with fast being 300 baud. Generously, it was more like very slow, slow, and medium — or if you ask me excruciatingly slow, very slow, and slow. But this was pretty typical.
If you wanted high quality output you could get a daisywheel printer, or better yet, get an interface that let you connect a daisywheel typewriter. That’ll save you some bucks… but ribbons are not cheap.
They still get you on the ink.
With these kinds of devices you could reasonably produce “letter-quality” output. But what a microcosm of what’s normal the journey was. Consider the serial protocol: 7 or 8 bits? parity or no? odd or even? Baud rate? You could spend a half hour guessing before you saw anything at all. But no worries, the same software to talk to a TRS-80 Votrax synthesizer and speak like you’re in Wargames.
Now I call these things printers but you should understand they are not anything like what you see today. The 2023 for instance could not even advance the page without moving the head all the way from side to side. Dot matrix printers came out with new features like “bi-directional” meaning they could print going left to right and then right to left so they weren’t wasting time on the return trip. Or “logic seeking” meaning that the printer head didn’t travel the whole length of the printed line but instead could advance from where it was to where it needed to be on the next line forwards or backwards. A laser printer it ain’t.
Double-density dot matrix for “near-letter-quality” gave you a pretty polished look. 132 character wide beds were great for nice wide program listings but options were definitely more limited if you were not willing to roll your own interface box.
Still, with a good printer you could do your high school homework in a word processor, and print it in brown ink on beige paper with all your mistakes corrected on screen before you ever wrote a single character.
So much for my Brother Electric. Thanks anyway mom.
I’m only up to 1980, that’s pretty amazing considering what’s happened in the story so far. The Altair 8800 made its big splash in the January edition of Popular Electronics (which naturally came out in December). Now it’s 1980, only a half-decade later, and we’ve gone from that barely-there device to things even my 2014 eyes would recognize as actual personal computers. Visicalc is available on the Apple II and is changing the way people think about their data, it would soon find its way to the CBM family of machines. A not-especially-wealthy person could reasonably afford to buy a computer, a good letter-quality printer, and all the storage they could stand (in the form of lotsa floppy disks) and even have several choices and different price points that would meet those criteria. Database programs were starting to be a thing but I’d have to say that until DBASE came along later things were pretty much hit-or-miss and there was no clear tool-of-choice.
Notes On Graphics
That amount of progress is just astonishing. One thing that hadn’t changed too much was processor speed. During most of this time machines ran at about 1Mhz and that would remain the case for some time yet. Another thing is the availability of general purpose hi-res graphics. Now it’s not that we didn’t call things hi-res but Apple II’s notion of hires graphics for instance sported a whopping 280x192 pixels with a not-fully-general color display system (which you can read about elsewhere if you really like). Not-fully-general would be pretty typical for some time. Probably until CGA graphics of the PC, which was still a good 18 months away.
I think there’s a pretty simple reason why this was still hard, If you consider a typical good-quality screen at the time, you get about 40 characters by 25. Not too much later 80 column displays become available (wow is that roomy! No more program wrapping!) but I think 40 columns is more fair at this time. OK 40 columns, typically 8 pixels by 8 pixels in a cell. So 320x200. That’s nearly 64k bits or 8k to store all those pixels. Well for starters 8k is a lot of RAM in 1980 but almost as important we have to read the RAM 60 times a second and that gives us about a 480kB/s bandwidth problem — challenging on a memory bus of the day which is 1Mhz and that memory has to dual port. And that was assuming 1 bit per pixel. To get even 4 colors total (CGA quality) you need 2 bits and 16k — that was pretty much not happening.
On the other hand, downsizing was about to happen in a big way. Err, a small way. If the PET was austere the VIC-20 was downright Spartan. At 5k of memory, with only 3.5k available for BASIC you couldn’t fit much code in the thing. But with crazy-double height character mapping you could tile every pixel — at 22x23 you had 506 characters, requiring exactly that many bytes for the storage plus there was a side table of colors for the meaning of the 1 and 0 bits in the main table. Of course there were not quite enough characters to cover the screen like that, but 160 by 160 was possible with 200 double height characters.
VIC20 was wildly popular at $300, not just because of its built in capabilities but because its expansion port accepted a variety of cartridges which could then bring additional capabilities. For starters even a simple game cartridge would have the game in question on ROM so that meant you didn’t need to use any of that precious 3k to store the program. But you could get a whopping 16k cartridge for the thing and have VAST amounts of memory for BASIC programming. The keyboard was totally reasonable — the whole thing looked like a thick-ish keyboard, and there was a custom low-end serial port that was kind of like IEEE488 over serial. And plenty slow. But it worked and it was cheap. Notably VIC20 was the first computer I know with a modem for less than $100. Bucketfulls of those sold as well and Compuserve, The Source, and others suddenly had a huge influx of users. Over a million modems sold.
One of the great things about having a device this inexpensive was that it could be used in a variety of custom applications straight-out-of-the-box instead of deploying custom hardware. In this time at my work we were experimenting with a small breadboard we called the Universal Interface which basically was a 6502 and some standard IO parts for it (a 6522ish thing) plus room for ROM and a breadboard for whatever else we needed and an IEEE488 port that could be repurposed if needed. We’d load it up and it would serve for converting whatever inputs to whatever outputs, usually IEEE488 so a PET could read it. But when space wasn’t a factor, or when video was desired, you could actually deploy a VIC pretty economically, and people did.
Speaking of small computers though, the VIC20 may seem itty bitty to your eyes but it’s downright luxurious compared to the champion of minimalist design — the Sinclair ZX80. This baby featured a swell Z80 processor and sold at $99. (Today I can get a very nice tablet for the same price) It had 1k of memory, and it had very limited video hardware — leaving the heavy lifting to the CPU. At 32x24 characters if you displayed everything you’d only have 384 bytes to work with. Yowsa. In the ZX81 would let your code would run very slowly when displaying video as it could only dedicate cycles to your program during the vertical blank. The ZX80 didn’t even do that, so real time graphics weren’t really an option. But wow, what a slick trick!
So at this point in history, we have the VIC, PET, Apple, TRS80-CoCo which I barely mentioned, ZX80, and maybe some other lesser known ones. We’re 18 months away from the PC and 4 years away from the Mac. By volume VIC20 will dominate, defining home computing for 2 years for many, whilst other offerings are actually pretty much universally superior to an unexpanded VIC. For comparison, something north of 2000 Altair 8800s were sold. A half decade later VIC20 was selling 9000 units a day for about the same price as the 8800 kit.
Even William Shatner got in on the deal…
I’d say in general there was a lot more genetic diversity in the market in the 80s than maybe at any other time. Not just 22 brands of PCs (and even a Mac is a PC these days) but really fundamentally different architectures with often crazily different design choices. The PC era, and PC clones especially, really started the unification process in a serious way. At least from my chair.
I want to dedicate this next section to some of the last and most interesting microcomputers I encountered before really getting into the world of PCs. And I cannot possibly do them all justice but let me focus on what I dealt with.
An absolutely amazing beast sporting two entirely different processors because I guess getting all those programming languages, wait for it, to run on a 6502 was just not happening. The 6809 was sort of half way to being a 16 bit processor and had an instruction set that was super fun to hack on. I spent a great deal of time getting a disassembler hand entered (I wish I could remember who wrote the thing) and then disassembling the SuperPET ROMs to figure out how some stuff worked. That turned out to be less than fun because there was quite a lot of compiled code. With it’s exotic banked memory address system some kind of automatic linkage and fixup system was necessary so you could move from code-page to code-page without going out of your mind. It was done pretty much the same way any kind of not-virtual-memory overlay system works. Which is to said ugly to read by a human.
But the thing had Basic, COBOL, APL, Fortran, Pascal… and even more including an assembler and a lower level programming language whose name I forget…
The Commodore 64
Arguably the most successful microcomputer of its generation. It was inexpensive, yet packed enough punch to run great games (for its time) and could produce better than average video for normal monitors and pretty good sound. All for a very low price tag… in the early days $600ish but ultimately closer to $300. When you consider that a SuperPET might cost you 10x as much this was quite a value. At the time 64k of memory was a ton… and programs were small enough to easily fit on a 5.25 inch floppy. Commodores custom serial peripherals needed a performance boost to really be useful but there were plenty of third parties willing to help you there. With smart peripherals and software controlled ports, any data line could be turned into whatever protocol you wanted… with enough effort.
Great joysticks, and other controllers and a huge variety of games and productivity software made the device compelling for pretty much any family. Well north of 10 million units were produced so the likelihood that you knew someone who had one was very high indeed. If you wanted one, you could probably get one, even if you just worked a part time job (what a world, what a world…).
The C64’s big secret was its ability to unmap ROMs and other address pieces and replace them with regular RAM. When skillfully applied that unlocked all of the memory. But with no skill you still got half the maximum bytes available to you. 64k for $300? Loony tunes amazing. Build in synthesizers? Three of them? For no CPU cost? Amazing! Why, you could spend hours just playing MULE.
The Commodore Amiga
The Amiga is a storied wonder, and it’s in many ways the kind of computer you could never really build again. Featuring real multi-threading (with one CPU mind you), amazing graphics, DMA sound, a huge amount of (expandable) memory (512k, 1M, and 2M were not uncommon configurations), and “high speed” 3.5" floppies standard. The expansion ecosystem included non-volatile memory, SCSI, and the famous NewTek Video Toaster. Its custom graphics chipset was unprecedented at the time, at least in a personal computer, and people really made it do a lot of Stupid Amiga Tricks usually featuring a bouncing ball.
With a Motorola M68000 true 16 bit processor at ~7Mhz, a full size (NTSC) screen, decent mouse, amazing sound and graphics, you’d expect it to take the world by storm. But alas, that wasn’t exactly meant to be. The Amiga’s history is long and complicated and ultimately I think sad rather than triumphant. But as a user of the thing wow… The thing offered great programming tools, several excellent C compilers, and other high level languages; dozens of editors; and enormous library of (mostly crappy but sometimes incredible) free software curated by Fred Fish. The platform had sufficient “real operating system” stuff that you could do amazing things like create custom device drivers, custom file systems, custom network stacks… it was a wonderful playground for an up and coming undergraduate like myself. I even ported the Maple algebraic system to Amiga.
And the games… well lets say I spent far too much of my youth playing Earl Weaver Baseball and other amazing titles. It was uncanny what you could do with the Copper and the Blitter, just buy anything Psygnosis ever made and you’d be good for years.
But, multi-processing with no memory protection? I don’t think you could get away with that now… on the other hand strange things like CHIP memory vs. FAST memory don’t look that strange to those of us who have to deal with onboard GPUs, even in 2016. However, some Amiga models also had half-fast memory (with all the woes of both). Say it 3 times fast…
The Atari ST
I wasn’t a big Atari user and I’m avoiding the Mac and the PC for this history because they’re “what came later” I guess but I feel like I can skip the ST entirely.
Another in the 68000 trio (the Mac being the 3rd) the ST was the most economical of the bunch and I think maybe suffered the most for it in terms of standard hardware design, quality of video, and cleanliness of the operating system — not that you could really call AmigaDOS especially clean…
But the guts were very similar and the toolchains available also very similar. You could write amazing code for the ST, outrunning a VAX mini in many cases, and it sat on your desk for a few hundred bucks. If you wanted to play around it was a great and economical option. And someone who loves the ST should give it some love because I’ve not given it enough here.
There’s a huge list that I was exposed to at least a little, the Acorn, the BBC Micro, assorted CP/M machines from IMSAI. Many other PET flavors and Amiga subflavors… to say nothing of breadboardish homebrews that ran a string of lights, or a launched a marble — they foreshadowed Arduino or Raspberry Pi. None of these took the world by storm but they were fun for a day, or a week. I’m glad people are still doing this.
And that’s all for now… We’re kind of at 1985 or so… PC’s and Mac’s are set to take over the world. There will be an article about a think called MINIX that will be kind of exciting… and the Free Software Foundation is getting pretty exciting. But I ultimately went to Microsoft…