Vintage Computers and Hardware

Vintage Computers 1970 – 2000


Heathkit H89 (1979) – Heath Company

Heathkit H89 Computer (1979) - Heath Company

Heathkit H89 Computer

In 1979, prior to Zenith’s purchase of Heath Company, Heathkit had originally designed and marketed this computer in kit form as the Heath H89, assembled as the WH89, and without the floppy but with a cassette interface card as the H88. (Note: Prior to the Zenith purchase, the Heathkit model numbers did not include the – ‘dash’).

Heath/Zenith also made a serial terminal, the H19/Z-19, based on the same enclosure (with a blank cover over the diskette drive cut-out) and terminal controller. They even offered an upgrade kit to convert the terminal into a full H89/Z-89 computer.

Another configuration, the Z-90, changed the floppy drive controller from the hard-sectored controller (max 100 KB) to a soft-sectored controller that supported double-sided, double density, 96 tpi drives with a capacity of 800 KB. It also came standard with 64 KB of RAM.


Atari 400 (1979) – Atari Inc.

Atari 400 Computer (1979) - Atari Inc.

Atari 400 Computer

The Atari 8-bit family is a series of 8-bit home computers manufactured from 1979 to 1992. All are based on the MOS Technology 6502 CPU and were the first home computers designed with custom coprocessor chips. Over the following decade several versions of the same basic design were released, including the original Atari 400 and 800 and their successors, the XL and XE series of computers.

Overall, the Atari 8-bit computer line was a commercial success, selling two million units during its major production run between late 1979 and mid-1985, a total of around 4 million units.

Management identified two sweet spots for the new computers, a low-end version known as Candy, and a higher-end machine known as Colleen (named after two attractive Atari secretaries). The primary difference between the two models was marketing; Atari marketed Colleen as a computer, and Candy as a game machine or hybrid game console.

Colleen would include user-accessible expansion slots for RAM and ROM, two 8 KB cartridge slots, RF and monitor output (including two pins for separate luma and chroma) and a full keyboard, while Candy used a plastic “membrane keyboard”, non-accessible internal slots for memory, and only RF output for video.

The Atari 400, despite its membrane keyboard and single internal ROM cartridge slot, outsold the full keyboard and RAM expandable Atari 800 by a 2-to-1 margin. Because of this, developers were generally unwilling to use the 800-only right cartridge slot.


Atari 800 (1979) – Atari Inc.

Atari 800 Computer (1979)

Atari 800 Computer

*Information as above (Atari 400).


TI-99/4 (1979) – Texas Instruments – First 16-bit domestic Computer

Texas Instruments TI-99-4 Computer (1979) with Speech Synthesizer, RF modulator, keyboard overlays

Texas Instruments TI-99/4 Computer

Early models (the TI-99/4, identified by its keyboard and “(C)1979 TEXAS INSTRUMENTS” on the title page) included a built-in equation calculator, but in the 99/4A (“(C)1981 TEXAS INSTRUMENTS“) this feature was discontinued. All consoles included TI BASIC, a strict ANSI-compliant BASIC programming language interpreter which was largely incompatible with the more popular, and frequently imitated, Microsoft BASIC.

Later consoles, identified by “(C)1983 TEXAS INSTRUMENTS V2.2” on the title page, also removed the ability for the system to execute unlicensed ROM-based cartridges, locking out third-party manufacturers such as Atarisoft.

The system also supported saving to, and loading from two cassette drives through a dedicated port, and had a joystick port that supported two digital joysticks, which TI referred to as “wired remote controllers.” The two joysticks were connected through a single nine pin port, which therefore supported only TI joysticks directly.

Aftermarket adapters were available which allowed the use of two Atari-compatible joysticks. Composite video and audio were output through another port on NTSC-based machines, and combined by an external RF modulator for use with a television.PAL-based machines output a more complex YUV signal which is also modulated to UHF externally.

The TI-99/4 series holds the distinction of being the first 16-bit personal computer. The TI-99/4A had a 16-bit TMS9900 CPU running at 3.0 MHz. The TMS9900 was based on TI’s range of TI-990 mini computers.


Sharp MZ-80K (1979) – Sharp

Sharp MZ-80K (1979)

Sharp MZ-80K Computer

The Sharp MZ80K was one of the popular early consumer-level microcomputers, with an architecture based on the Zilog Z80 8-bit microprocessor. It was introduced into Europe in 1979. The machine had 48KB of RAM, 32KB of which was available for user programs (the actual figure was dependent on the memory configuration and the system languages being used). It could run a variety of high-level languages including BASIC, Pascal and FORTRAN, which had to be loaded into RAM before any programming could be undertaken.

It could also be programmed directly in assembly code or machine code. The machine had an inbuilt monochrome display and a cassette tape drive. The display, keyboard and cassette drive lifted on hinges to expose the motherboard and circuitry underneath. Graphics capability was primitive, with only preset shapes and icons being available and no native hi-res capability. This was not unusual for a late-1970s vintage microcomputer. The main drawback, however, of the MZ-80K was the non-standard keyboard, which was difficult to use.

The MZ-80K sold well in Europe despite its high price (it retailed at over £500 in 1980), and a large range of software was available, including some Japanese arcade games. It was superseded in 1982 by the MZ-80A machine.


Intertec Superbrain (1979) –  Intertec Data Systems Corp.

Intertec Superbrain Computer (1979)

Intertec Superbrain Computer

The Intertec Superbrain was an all-in-one commercial microcomputer first sold by Intertec Data Systems Corp. in 1979. The machine ran the operating system CP/M and was somewhat unusual in that it used dual Z80 CPUs, the second being used as a disk controller. In 1983, the basic machine sold for about $2000.

There were several variants, including the Superbrain II, Superbrain II Jr., “QD” (quad density disk drives) and “SD” (super density) models.

The Superbrain is notable for being at the user end of the first Kermit connection in 1981.

The machine was practical and useful in the office environment, but somewhat limiting until the arrival of the first 5MB hard disks in one of the floppy drive bays. This was soon replaced by the 10MB Winchester thus effectively removing all limitations on what could be programmed and stored.


HP-85 (1980) – Hewlett-Packard

HP-85 (1980)

HP-85 Computer

The Hewlett-Packard series 80 of small scientific desktop computers was introduced in 1980, beginning with the popular HP-85 targeted at engineering and control applications. They provided the capability of the HP 9800 series desktop computers in a smaller package including storage and printer, at half the price. Ultimately, the market for desktop computing would go to IBM PC compatible personal computers (the IBM PC was announced shortly after the 80 series).

The first model of the Series 80 was the HP-85, introduced in January 1980. In a typewriter-style desktop case, it contained the CPU and keyboard, 16 kB dynamic RAM, a 5-inch CRT screen (16 lines of 32 characters, or 256×192 pixels), a tape drive for DC-100 cartridges (210 kB capacity, 650 B/s transfer) and a thermal printer. Both the screen and printer display graphics in addition to text, and the printer could copy anything shown on the screen.

The chassis includes four module slots in the back for expansion which can hold memory modules, ROM extensions, or interfaces such as RS-232 and GPIB.

All components were designed at the Hewlett-Packard Personal Computer Division in Corvallis, Oregon, including the processor and core chipset.

Later models offered variations such as different or external displays, built-in interfaces or a rack-mountable enclosure (see table below for details).


IBM 5120 (1980) – IBM

IBM 5120 Computer (1980)

IBM 5120 Computer

The IBM 5120 Computing System (sometimes referred to as the IBM 5110 Model 3) was announced in February 1980 as the desktop follow-on to the IBM 5110 Computing System. It featured two built-in 8-inch 1.2 MB floppy disk drives, 9-inch monochrome monitor, BASIC Programming Language, 32K RAM and optional IBM 5114 stand-alone diskette unit with two additional 8-inch 1.2 MB floppy disk drives.

Other computer data storage products were available from Core International, Inc for these machines.

Aside from larger screen size and performance benefits over its predecessor, the IBM 5120 design incorporated several usability advantages:

  • Reduced ‘footprint’ requiring less desktop space
  • Reduced glare on monitor, keytop and product surfaces
  • Ease of handling/lifting based on bottom form treatment
  • Reduced static loading in arms and shoulders due to keyboard palm rest

For its usability features and appearance, the IBM 5120 was recognized with two major industrial design awards and described with terms such as clean, well thought out; subtle detailing shows great care in execution; and looks like quality.

It was launched in 1980 as the lowest-priced IBM business computer to date. Depending on the options the overall system prices ranged from $9,340 to $23,990. To emphasize its office image IBM released in that same year 6 new programs: task inventory, billing, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable and general ledger accounting.

In 1983, Core International introduced PC51, software that allowed 5100 Series computer programs written in BASIC to run unmodified on the IBM PC and compatibles under PC DOS.


TRS-80 Color Computer (1980) – Tandy Corporation

TRS-80 Color Computer (1980)

TRS-80 Color Computer

The Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer (also marketed as the Tandy Color Computer and affectionately nicknamed CoCo) was a home computer launched in 1980. It was one of the earliest of the first generation of computers marketed for home use in English-speaking markets. While the model was eventually eclipsed by the onset of the IBM PC clones, enthusiasts have continued to tinker with the “CoCo” to the present day.

Despite bearing the TRS-80 name, the “Color Computer” was a radical departure from the earlier TRS-80; in particular it had a Motorola 6809E processor, rather than the TRS-80’s Zilog Z80. Thus, despite the similar name, the new machine was absolutely not compatible with software made for the old TRS-80.

The Motorola 6809E was a very advanced processor, but was correspondingly more expensive than other more popular microprocessors. Competing machines such as the Apple II, Commodore VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Atari 400, and the Atari 800 were designed around the much cheaper MOS 6502, itself essentially an enhanced clone of the Motorola 6800.

Some of these competing machines were paired with dedicated sound and graphics chips and were much more commercially successful in the 1980s home computer market. Steve Wozniak once commented that the 6502 was 1/4 the price of the Motorola 6800 when the original Apple was being developed in the late 70s. By 1986 prices for 8 bit processors had dropped dramatically from the late 70s, but the MC6809 was still just over twice the price of a MOS6502 (6809/6809E – $5.95; MOS6502 – $2.79).

The Tandy Color Computer line started in 1980 with what is now called the CoCo1 and ended in 1991 with the more powerful yet similar CoCo 3. It was one of the more powerful 8 bit computers of its day. All three CoCo models maintained a very high level of software and hardware compatibility, with few programs written for the older model not running on the newer.

The converse cannot be claimed, obviously, due to the greater capabilities of the newer CoCo models. The death knell of the CoCo was the advent of lower cost IBM PC clones, the same event that spelled the end of other models competing in the home computer market.

The CoCo lacked some of the graphics and sound capabilities of other home computers, but made up for it in computing power and ease of programming in BASIC. Combined with the versatile BASIC, the robust, easy-to-interface-to design has long made it an experimenter’s favorite.


TRS-80 Model III (1980) – Tandy Corporation

TRS-80 Model III Computer (1980)

TRS-80 Model III Computer

In July 1980 Tandy released the Model III. The improvements of the Model III over the Model I included built-in lower case, a better keyboard, 1500-baud cassette interface, and a faster (2.03 MHz) Z-80 processor. With the introduction of the Model III, Model I production was discontinued as it did not comply with new FCC regulations as of January 1, 1981 regarding electromagnetic interference.

The Model I radiated so much interference that while playing games an AM radio placed next to the computer could be used to provide sounds.

The Model III could run about 80% of Model I software, but used an incompatible disk format. Customers and developers complained of bugs in its BASIC and the TRS-DOS operating system. The computer also came with the option of integrated disk drives.


TRS-80 Pocket Computer (1980) – Tandy Corporation

TRS-80 Pocket Computer (1980)

TRS-80 Pocket Computer

The TRS-80 name was also used for a pocket computer manufactured by Sharp Corporation for Tandy besides being the name of the TRS-80 personal computer. The handheld unit, introduced in July 1980, measured 175 × 70 × 15 mm and weighed 170 g, and had a one-line, 24-character alphanumeric LCD.

The TRS-80 Pocket Computer was programmable in BASIC, with a capacity of 1424 “program steps”. This memory was shared with variable storage of up to 178 locations, in addition to the 26 fixed locations named A through Z.

Programs and data could be stored on a cassette tape through an optional external tape interface unit. A printer/cassette interface was available, which used an ink ribbon on plain paper.

Although not branded as such, this became known as the PC-1, as later models were labelled PC-2 through PC-8. Some were made by Sharp, and the rest were made by Casio (PC-4 through PC-7). The PC-2 had 4 colored ball point pens and could print or plot on plain paper. The others all used thermal paper, the PC-3 and PC-8 using the same printer, the PC-4, PC-5 and PC-6 using the same printer, and the PC-7 having no printer or cassette interface.


Sinclair ZX80 (1980) – Science of Cambridge Ltd. (Sinclair Research)

Sinclair ZX80 (1980)

Sinclair ZX80 Computer

The Sinclair ZX80 is a home computer brought to market in 1980 by Science of Cambridge Ltd. (later to be better known as Sinclair Research). It is notable for being the first computer (unless one counts the MK14) available in the United Kingdom for less than a hundred pounds. It was available in kit form for £79.95, where purchasers had to assemble and solder it together, and as a ready-built version at £99.95.

The ZX80 was very popular straight away, and for some time there was a waiting list of several months for either version of the machine. The ZX80 was named after the Z80 processor with the ‘X’ for “the mystery ingredient”.

Internally, the machine was designed by Jim Westwood around a Z80 central processing unit with a clock speed of 3.25 MHz, and was equipped with 1 kB of static RAM and 4 kB of read-only memory (ROM). The ZX80 was designed around readily available TTL chips; the only proprietary technology was the firmware.

While the successor ZX81 used a semi-custom chip (a ULA or Uncommitted Logic Array), this merely combined the functions of the earlier hardware onto a single chip — the hardware and system programs (except the BASIC versions) were very similar, with the only significant difference being the NMI-generator necessary for slow mode in the ZX81.

Both computers can be made by hobbyists using commercially available discrete logic chips or FPGAs.


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