Antique computer hardware: When does old become gold?

When does an old piece of computer kit stop being just useless junk and instead become a pricy classic? Maybe because people loved it – or perhaps because it was never loved at all.

I recently spotted an eBay auction for collection of books and floppy disks for the three decades old Xerox 16/8 (not the computer itself) which were offered for the tidy sum of $249 — which left me reeling.

If you've never heard of the Xerox 16/8, then relax — neither have most other people.

The 16/8 was a one-off, a rarity or, to put it another way, a mistake. Those were interesting times, back in the early 80s.

In 1981, IBM launched its Personal Computer — the IBM PC, as it became known. This was the machine that changed the world of computing forever. It did so because IBM was persuaded against the idea of launching a system that was proprietary and instead decided to make it an "open" system — one that could be more or less freely copied by other manufacturers.

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At that time, the nascent computer world already had a standard for computers that ran on 8-bit processors running the CP/M (Controle Program.Microcomputers) operating system operating system. IBM thought it would go one better with a 16-bit operating system that it bought in from Bill Gates' Microsoft called MSDOS (MicroSoft Disk Operating System).

By 1983, two years after the launch of the IBM PC every computer company was launching its own personal computers to compete. Some of the computers were based on CP/M but many used MSDOS. Others — like those from the minicomputer suppliers such as Digital Equipment (DEC) and Data General — would use a combination of their own design and/or MSDOS, or both.

It was a confusing and, to be honest, fun time when it seemed that companies large and small, and many you had never heard of, were jumping on the personal computer bandwagon.

Xerox must have thought: 'well, if the current standard operating system is 8-bit and the world's biggest computer company has launched a 16-bit computer, how about having a computer that can run both'.

The idea was that you would switch on the computer and load the operating system with a floppy disk. The 8-bit CP/M would be on one disk the 16-bit MSDOS on another, and the user would decide which one to use when booting up.

So, a year or two after IBM’s entry into the computer market comes Xerox with its own offering. Xerox was hoping to make an impression on what had become a very competitive market but it had one advantage — a track record in advanced systems.

At that time, Xerox’s research centre, PARC or Palo Alto Research Centre, was world famous for innovation in technology. The company would come up with the most innovative developments, such as the Ethernet local area network computer, laser printing, the graphical user interface (GUI) — known as WIMPS, for windows, icons, mouse, pointer — as used to this day, the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) system of text editing, and the Alto, the world’s first personal computer.

Under the guidance of such brilliant academics as Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay, PARC should have thrived but didn't. It was left to other companies to try to capitalise on PARC's work.

This is where Xerox comes in with the 16/8. At that time, it must have seemed like such a good idea to have a system that could use both the operating system of the day — 8-bit CP/M — and the operating system of the future — 16-bit MSDOS — in one package.  You would have the ultimately flexible computer — or so Xerox must have thought.

With hindsight of course, the 16/8 was doomed to fail. The requirements of two operating systems meant having two computers in one box. Two processors, two sets of memory, two of everything more or less — you could get away with one power supply and one set of disks.

And, of course, the 16/8 also posed the one question it did not want to answer — who needs two computers? The answer is nobody, as Xerox found out. The average user would want to run either CP/M or MSDOS, but not both.

Of course, one or two people might — someone like me, for example. In 1983, I was working for the leading computer magazine of its day, Which Computer? Running both CP/M and MSDOS meant I could review systems that ran either OS.

Even better, it came with a Xerox printer and then, as now, Xerox did good printers; in this instance, it was a very good printer indeed. The Xerox Diablo 630 was what was called a daisywheel printer. The daisywheel was a flower-shaped circular print head that punched out each character separately. It was slow, but it printed beautifully. My copy may or may not have read well, but it printed out beautifully.

Eventually, the 16/8 was consigned to the junk pile before no doubt being thrown out. In view of its apparent value now, there is a lesson there somewhere but one I prefer not to spend any time thinking about ...

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