“No one will survive the attack of the killer micros!” From the early 70’s onward, the mainframe computer became a relic, confined to industrial usage only, while the “microcomputer” (the device you’re most likely reading this article on) was introduced and took the world by storm. At last, small businesses and home users could have a computer in their home that could cost less than a month’s pay, fit on a desktop, and not use more power than a TV set.
The World Wide Web lagged another ten years behind, but home computers and the Internet developed ahead of it. This was the beginning of the BBS (Bulletin Board System), Usenet, Archie, Gopher, and the home gaming console.
A BBS login screen, running on a TRS-80. 5.1 megahertz was “blinding” and one megabyte of storage was something to brag about!
A cartridge for the Atari BASIC programming kit. Even then, IDEs were overhyped.
It is a staggering consideration that there were dozens of computer companies at the beginning and today we have about two major home types. In the 80’s, we had this explosion of companies selling computers, only to see them die off by the score a decade later. What the heck happened to them all?
Note that for obtaining the actual physical hardware, in most cases your best bet is to look up a collector willing to sell or trade on either VintageComputer.com or OldComputers.com. Failing that, the obvious is to search for it on eBay or or find the Usenet group for the model you seek and ask in there. In the case of the more widely-sold models, such as Apple IIs, Commodores, and x86, I’ve found them in thrift stores and flea markets all over the place.
For emulating, almost every vintage computer you’ve ever heard of is emulated in the massive MESS (Multiple Emulator Super System) project. As you would expect, an open source project with ports to Windows, Mac, and Linux/Unix. By default, check here for an emulation option first.
In order to sort the information into something with relevance to how readers might use it, let’s take it one system at a time, without too nit-picking a regard for chronological order.
The Xerox Alto and the Altair 8080 These two were, respectively, the first prototype and the first retail models of the home computer as we know it. The whole idea of a “desktop” metaphor, with windows and icons and a mouse pointer, started with these two. We’re just mentioning them here because, well, they were the first. They were also two of the most famously blown opportunities in computing history; Xerox was too busy fighting the copier war, while the Altair computer company had no clue how to market the models. Both Bill Gates and Steve Wozniac saw these two models and took off with their grand vision to form their own companies. Not widely available in an emulator version these days, and the hardware versions are rare and pricey.
TRS-80 Tandy’s first major home computer offering. Sold through Radio Shack electronics stores, and featuring a fair BASIC programming environment. An entire line of Tandy computers spawned from this model, which eventually started to look as good as anything available on a Mac system before being discontinued. You can walk into a Radio Shack store today and say the word “Tandy” to the clerk, and they’ll look at you in utter confusion.
Commodores We’ll include everything from the VIC-20 to the C64 to the PET in this category. This line became famous for hobbyist games and demos, BBS activity, and educational deployment, but failed to conquer the business market. Virtually anyone who programs for a living today and who is over 35 can remember hacking BASIC code on a C64 or thereabouts. Also, the form of graphics art using ANSI characters was virtually born on the Commodore.
Emulators available: About half of the Commodore line is emulated under the already-mentioned MESS project. For a blast from the past: Commodore demos, recorded as YouTube videos. And here’s a fan website of die-hard Commodore lovers – while you’re there, do not miss the graphics art gallery – it’s worth the visit alone!
Apple 2 and Apple Lisa Here’s your day, Apple fans! The Apple 2 (or is it “Apple II” or “Apple ][” ?) and Lisa models were the groundbreaking offerings of the Apple line and probably the first introduction to computers most home users of this era had.
Emulators: So numerous, there is even an XScreensaver mode that simulates an Apple2 entering and running BASIC programs (pictured above). This Wiki list shows Apple2 emulators for everything from the home PC to Palms and even a Java applet. The Lisa emulator project releases a Lisa emulator for Windows, Macs, and Unix. And of course the MESS project has a mess of emulators for many versions of legacy Apple systems.
We’ve barely scratched the surface, many more vintage machines and their modern incarnations coming up in the next part!
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- Vintage Computing – part 4
- Vintage Gaming – part five: the miscellaneous part…
- Vintage Computing – part 1
- What does this key do?
- The Most Exotic Computer and Internet History Links