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Gallery: The outer limits of vintage technology

ZDNet UK was a proud media sponsor for the first vintage computer festival ever held in the UK. See some of the machines that paved the way for today's technology.
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1 of 18 Andy Smith/ZDNet

ZDNet UK was a proud media sponsor for the first vintage computer festival ever held in the UK. ZDNet UK's Rupert Goodwins was at the weekend event at Bletchley Park and captured the sheer geekish joy that 2,000 visitors and 32 exhibitors generated.?

?One exhibit featured the Sinclair ZX81. Seen here to the right of its whiter ancestor, the ZX80, the computer was the first mass-market success for UK home computing.?

?Incorporating a Ferranti ULA (Uncommitted Logic Array), which was the first semi-custom logic chip in a consumer product, the ZX81 cost under £100 and required nothing more than a tape player and a TV to work. The user was expected to program the computer themselves, and it came with a substantial programmer's manual that — for the adventurous — included a complete Z80 instruction set and list of internal memory locations.?

?The game on the screen here, 3D Monster Maze, was one of many that achieved the near-impossible by creating a real gaming experience from the upper-case-only, black-and-white, 32x24 character screen.?

?Reputedly, the ZX81 was the only product that made a profit for Sinclair Research: although the ZX Spectrum sold more, the high rate of returns of the device was expensive to maintain.?

?Also in this picture are the ZX Printer, which spark-eroded patterns onto metallicised paper, and the ZX Microdrives, which are endless loops of tape that frequently consumed more data than they regurgitated.?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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More Sinclair-branded products, although only 1984's business-oriented QL (closest to the camera) was actually made by Sinclair itself.?

?In 1986, Sinclair folded and Amstrad bought the rights to the name and the technology, subsequently producing the Sinclair Spectrum128 +2 and +3, and the PC200 (furthest away). The PC200, the last computer to bear the Sinclair name and logo, was a cut-down IBM compatible PC with little expandability and very quirky hardware: it was not a success.?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Chris Serle (right), presenter of '80s TV shows such as Making The Most Of The Micro and Micro Live, talks to Chris Smith, '80s game programmer, about the ZX Spectrum ULA, the semi-custom chip at the heart of the popular colour 8-bit micro.?

?Smith has undertaken the reverse engineering and recreation of this component, and he demonstrated a working breadboard running Spectrum software. And, like all good enthusiasts, he's not keeping the information to himself. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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The BBC Micro is another iconic early British design, and possibly the most heavily represented at the Vintage Computer Festival.?

?Designed to have as many interfaces as possible and built to a high standard by Acorn Computers, it has survived in large numbers, is beloved by the more technical, and has been at the heart of many larger projects. Here, it's the basis for the BBC's own Domesday Project — like Google Maps, but 20 years earlier.??Produced in 1986, the Domesday Project was an attempt to document every community in the UK using the latest multimedia technology, to honour 900 years of the original Domesday Book. Twenty years on, the laserdiscs and custom content formats make maintenance very difficult. With some of the material in the project protected by copyright until 2090, it is unlikely that it will ever emulate the success of its Norman inspiration. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Not British but doomed nonetheless, this circuit board has a good claim to being a true holy relic of the information technology revolution. It's a logic board from a 1975 Cray 1 supercomputer — moreover, from the very first one built.?

?For a while in the 1970s, Cray Research was the Concorde factory of computing. Powered by its speed-obsessed co-founder, Seymour Cray, the company used exotic technologies to make computers that went faster than anything mainstream and silicon-based could manage. Unfortunately, like Concorde, it turned out that prosaic technology was better after all, and the company did not succeed.??

?This board, with chips dated to late 1973, is built on a backplane of solid copper, making it very much heavier than comparably sized modern boards. Such measures, and many more, were necessary to get rid of the huge amounts of heat the designs created; the computer took a tenth of a megawatt.??

?Even though the computer had a clock speed of 80MHz, it could run at a maximum of 250 MFLOPS (mega floating point instructions per second). By way of comparison, the ARM architecture found in mobile phones can manage around 2 MFLOPS per MHz. On a 1GHz clock, that is eight times faster than a Cray 1 while taking around 400 milliwatts — a third of a million times less power. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Another relic of the days of big iron, this small modern circuit board is emulating an IBM System/360.?

?One of the kings of mainframe design, the S/360 was in production from 1964 to 1978 and was highly successful in business, science, engineering, government and research. It introduced a whole range of concepts familiar to this day, including the 8-bit byte. While it once filled rooms and cost fortunes, it can now be built by enthusiasts as a configuration file that configures a sliver of silicon smaller than a penny. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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The very early days of UK computing were directly influenced by the war, as the conflict provided both the research and the hardware available to manufacturers in the first years of peace. Hence this very militaristic Ferranti Pegasus control panel.?

?The Pegasus was a valve computer from the mid-1950s that had 280 bytes of memory and around 25KB of magnetic storage, and cost £50,000 in its most basic configuration. Just 25 years later, Ferranti would be making the chips at the heart of Sinclair's £49 home computers: less time than separates them from today's machines.?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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This Altair 8800 from 1975 is based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor, and was designed for electronics hobbyists at the behest of the editor of Popular Electronics magazine (a Ziff-Davis publication, incidentally, and thus part of ZDNet UK's heritage).?

?The Altair was also the first computer ordinary individuals could afford, and the first computer that a fledging company called Micro-Soft wrote Basic for. It's thus the undisputed seed crystal around which the popular microcomputer revolution grew, even though the first model could only flash its lights, and set Bill Gates on the road to becoming, well, Bill Gates. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Four years after the Altair 8800 arrived, the keen computer hobbyist would probably be seen hunched over something like this — the Compukit UK101. By then, computers came with keyboards and video outputs and enough memory to run slightly useful software.?

?Like the Altair, the Compukit was sold in kit form through magazines, with its design published in the UK publication Practical Electronics. Many computers from this period are highly customized, as they are hand-built with the casework and any extra peripherals left up to the owner. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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An example of the insanely collectible 1977 MK14 from Science of Cambridge, the company that was to become Sinclair Research.?

?The MK14 was the UK's first computer kit. Disagreements over subsequent developments and other aspects of the company led employee Chris Curry to go off and start up Acorn Computing, whose first product, the System 75, was surprisingly similar.?

?The MK14, designed to use up old calculator components and barely more powerful than a pocket calculator, ended up selling around 15,000 units — a surprise to its makers, and the first inkling that something big was about to happen in the UK tech market.?

?Only one of these boards is an original MK14 — the one third from the left, just behind the probing finger. The others are reconstructions, with the latest model on the extreme right being considered as a commercial product.?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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This peculiar device tells the time through a mixture of cogs, wheels and 1940s telephone exchange switches called uniselectors. Although made to a very high standard, it contains no makers marks or identification and appears to be unique: nothing like it is known. The owner, Michael Saunby, has documented it in great detail, and is very keen to find out more. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Well, not really launched: it had been announced earlier in the year. Little details like the manufacturer of the PowerPC CPU, the price, performance and availability are still secret. However, it will have an 500 MHz XMOS co-processor — the reconfigurable hardware technology created by ex-Inmos designers — and run AmigaOS 4.?

?Why an XMOS co-processor? Why not, is the answer: it really is the '80s all over again. No final cases either, but here's a shot of the circuit board. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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The company behind the Amiga X1000 is A-EON, and co-founder Trevor Dickinson (second from right) is an enormous Commodore fan with over 150 machines in his personal collection.?

?Here we see him and others reacting to a question at the event. We didn't catch the exact wording of the query, but strongly suspect it involved a variant of the phrase: "Why on earth are you doing this?"?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Speaking of why, here's a piece of ancient technology that is as puzzling as anything Alan Turing helped decode.?

?Clive Sinclair's obsession with electric transport was arguably decades ahead of its time, but like so many Sinclair products the results were only too anachronistic. The C5 electric trike used a torpedo motor and lead-acid batteries to propel the punter fitfully through the streets at just below the level where other road users could see them — but any danger was minimised by the speed at which the battery went flat and the nylon gearbox turned into grated plastic. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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As well as the Commodores and Sinclairs of fond memory, a whole host of by-now forgotten companies tried to cash in on the home 8-bit micro boom. One was Dragon Data from Wales, who had a moderate success with the Dragon 32 — effectively a clone of the Tandy Color Computer.?

?Like everyone else, Dragon found the temptation to get into the business market was too strong, and like everyone else it came head to head with large American companies that wiped them out. Here, you can see half the world's known examples of the Dragon Professional, a dual-disk machine that got to 10 production-ready prototypes before the money ran out. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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Another company that fused engineering smarts with marketing fruitbattery was Acorn Computers, which never recovered from having a huge success with the BBC Micro. It thrashed about wildly with monstrous concepts such as the ABC — Acorn Business Computer — examples of which are exceedingly rare, although Bletchley Park has a couple in its back rooms.?

?Acorn did spawn the ARM chip, which became successful after it left the control of the company. Before that, it found itself making computers such as this 1992 Acorn A4, the company's only portable. The A4 had business packages in ROM, a 24MHz ARM 3 chip, a price tag twice that of PC-based equivalents, and no sales to speak of. Brought out in the same month as Apple's Newton, also ARM-based, the A4 is a dead-end branch of a successful evolutionary tree. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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The urge to 'be professional' led to many mutations. The PBS Executive IV is executive because it's built into a briefcase.?

?This, however, cannot disguise its true nature, which is a Spectrum+ with thermal printer and Microdrive storage: without a display, it is not entirely clear how it was supposed to work. Nothing else is known of this odd creation, hence the plaintive sign: if you know of (or even better are) the mystery PBS, let us know and we'll make a Spectrum collector a very happy man. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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It would have been possible to compose an entertaining photostory about the Vintage Computer Festival at Bletchley Park without including a single shot of a computer, purely by documenting the ferociously varied and quite extraordinary mixture of people who came along. Here, we see one of the very rare sightings outside San Francisco of an extreme geek garment, the Utility Kilt — essentially, a dress with pockets worn by those either very comfortable with their sexuality or quite unaware that it exists.?

?The only other tribe who have taken to this admittedly practical and well-ventilated form of male attire are those connected with subgenres of the Death Metal/Goth Punker scene. However, we feel confident that our mature, bespectacled model is not a camp follower of Alkaline Trio but more concerned with interrupt latencies on the S100 bus. ?

Photos and captions: Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet UK

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