Vintage Computers and Hardware

Vintage Computers 1970 – 2000


Commodore VIC-20 (1981) – Commodore

Commodore VIC-20 (1981)

Commodore VIC-20 Computer

The VIC-20 (Germany: VC-20; Japan: VIC-1001) is an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines. The VIC-20 was announced in 1980, roughly three years after Commodore’s first personal computer, the PET. The VIC-20 was the first computer of any description to sell one million units.

The VIC-20 was intended to be more economical than the PET computer. It was equipped with only 5 kB of RAM (of this, only 3583 bytes were available to the BASIC programmer) and used the same MOS 6502 CPU as the PET. The VIC-20’s video chip, the MOS Technology VIC, was a general-purpose color video chip designed by Al Charpentier in 1977 and intended for use in inexpensive display terminals and game consoles, but Commodore could not find a market for the chip.

As the Apple II gained momentum with the advent of VisiCalc in 1979, Jack Tramiel wanted a product that would compete in the same segment, to be presented at the January 1980 CES. For this reason Chuck Peddle and Bill Seiler started to design a computer named TOI (The Other Intellect).

The VIC-20’s RAM was expandable through the cartridge port. RAM cartridges were available in several sizes: 3 kB (with or without an included BASIC extension ROM), 8 kB, 16 kB, 32 kB and 64 kB, the latter two only from third-party vendors.

The internal memory map was dramatically reorganized with the addition of each size cartridge, leading to the situation that some programs would only work if the right amount of memory was present (to cater for this, the 32 kB cartridges had switches, and the 64 kB cartridges had software setups, allowing the RAM to be enabled in user-selected sections).


Sinclair ZX81 (1981) – Sinclair Research

Sinclair ZX81 (1981)

Sinclair ZX81 Computer

The ZX81, released in a slightly modified form in the United States as the Timex Sinclair 1000, was a home computer produced by Sinclair Research and manufactured in Scotland by Timex Corporation. It was launched in the United Kingdom in March 1981 as the successor to Sinclair’s ZX80 and was designed to be a low-cost introduction to home computing for the general public. It was hugely successful and more than 1.5 million units were sold before it was eventually discontinued.

The ZX81 found commercial success in many other countries, notably the United States, where Timex manufactured and distributed it under licence and enjoyed a substantial but brief boom in sales. Timex later produced its own versions of the ZX81 for the US market – the Timex Sinclair 1000 and Timex Sinclair 1500. Unauthorised clones of the ZX81 were produced in a number of countries.

The ZX81 was designed to be small, simple, and above all cheap, using as few components as possible to keep the cost down. Video output was to a television set rather than a dedicated monitor. Programs and data were loaded and saved onto audio tape cassettes. It had only four silicon chips on board and a mere 1 kB of memory. The machine had no moving parts – not even a power switch – and used a pressure-sensitive membrane keyboard for manual input.

The ZX81’s limitations prompted the emergence of a flourishing market in third-party peripherals to improve its capabilities. Such limitations, however, achieved Sinclair’s objective of keeping the cost of the machine as low as possible. Its distinctive design brought its designer, Rick Dickinson, a Design Council award.

The ZX81 could be bought by mail order in kit form or pre-assembled. In what was then a major innovation, it was the first cheap mass-market home computer that could be bought from high street stores, led by W.H. Smith and soon many other retailers. The ZX81 marked the first time that computing in Britain became an activity for the general public, rather than the preserve of businesspeople and electronics hobbyists.

It inspired the creation of a huge community of enthusiasts, some of whom founded their own businesses producing software and hardware for the ZX81. Many went on to play a major role in the British computer industry in later years. The ZX81’s commercial success made Sinclair Research one of Britain’s leading computer manufacturers and earned a fortune and an eventual knighthood for the company’s founder, Sir Clive Sinclair.


Apple III (1981) – Apple Computer

Apple III (1981) - Apple Computer

Apple III Computer

The Apple III (often rendered as Apple ///) is a business-oriented personal computer produced and released by Apple Computer that was intended as the successor to the Apple II series, but largely considered a failure in the market. Development work on the Apple III started in late 1978 under the guidance of Dr. Wendell Sander. It had the internal code name of “Sara”, named after Sander’s daughter (“unreliable source?”).

The machine was first announced and released on May 19, 1980, but due to serious stability issues that required a design overhaul and a recall of existing machines, it was formally reintroduced the following autumn. Development stopped and the Apple III was discontinued on April 24, 1984, and the III Plus was dropped from the Apple product line in September 1985.

The Apple III could be viewed as an enhanced Apple II – then the newest heir to a line of 8-bit machines dating back to 1976. However, the Apple III was not part of the Apple II line, but rather a close cousin. The key features business users wanted in a personal computer were a true typewriter-style upper/lowercase keyboard (as opposed to the Apple II which was based on a teletype keyboard) and 80 column display. In addition, the machine had to pass U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) qualifications for business equipment.

In 1981,International Business Machines unveiled the IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC) – a completely new 16-bit design soon available in a wide range of inexpensive clones. The business market moved rapidly towards the PC DOS/MS-DOS platform, eventually pulling away from the Apple 8-bit computer line.

Despite numerous stability issues and recalls, Apple was eventually able to produce a reliable and dependable version of the machine. However, damage to the computer’s reputation had already been done and it failed to do well commercially as a direct result. In the end, an estimated 65,000–75,000 Apple III computers were sold. The Apple III Plus brought this up to ~120,000.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak stated that the primary reason for the Apple III’s failure was that the system was designed by Apple’s marketing department, unlike Apple’s previous engineering-driven projects. The Apple III’s failure led to Apple re-evaluating their plan to phase out the Apple II, and eventual continuation of development of the older machine. As a result, later Apple II models incorporated some hardware, such as the Apple Scribe Printer, a thermal printer, and software technologies of the Apple III.


Osborne 1 (1981) – Osborne Computer Corporation

Osborne 1 Computer (1981) - Osborne Computer Corporation

Osborne 1 Computer

The Osborne 1 was the first commercially successful portable microcomputer, released on 3 April 1981 by Osborne Computer Corporation. It weighed 10.7 kg (23.5 lb), cost $1,795 (USD), and ran the then-popular CP/M 2.2 operating system. The computer shipped with a large bundle of software that was almost equivalent in value to the machine itself, a practice adopted by other CP/M computer vendors.

Its principal deficiencies were considerable unit weight, a tiny 5 inches (13 cm) display screen and use of single sided, single density floppy disk drives which could not contain sufficient data for practical business applications.

The Osborne’s design was based largely on the Xerox NoteTaker, a prototype developed at Xerox PARC in 1976 by Alan Kay. The Osborne 1 was developed by Adam Osborne and designed by Lee Felsenstein. It was first announced in April 1981. Adam Osborne, an author of computer books, decided he wanted to break the price of computers.

The computer was designed to be portable, with a rugged ABS plastic case that closed up and a handle. The Osborne 1 was about the size and weight of a sewing machine and was advertised as the only computer that would fit underneath an airline seat. It is now classified as a “luggable” computer when compared to later laptop designs such as the Epson HX-20.

Despite its unattractive design and heavy weight, it resembled “a cross between a World War II field radio and a shrunken instrument panel of a DC-3”, and Felstenstein confessed that carrying two units four blocks to a trade show “nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets”. In the first eight months after April 1981, when the Osborne 1 was announced, the company sold 11,000 units.

Sales at their peak reached 10,000 units per month. In September 1981, Osborne Computer Company had its first US$1 million sales month. Sales of the Osborne 1 were hurt by the company’s premature announcement of superior successor machines such as the Osborne Executive, a phenomenon later called the Osborne effect.

From 1982 to 1985 the company published The Portable Companion, a magazine for Osborne users.


TI-99/4A (1981) – Texas Instruments

TI-99-4A Computer (1981) s

TI-99-4A Computer

The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A was an early home computer, released in June 1981, originally at a price of US$525. It was an enhanced version of the less successful TI-99/4 model, which was released in late 1979 at a price of $1,150. The TI-99/4A added an additional graphics mode, “lowercase” characters consisting of small capitals, and a full travel keyboard. Its predecessor, the TI-99/4, featured a calculator-style chiclet keyboard and a character set that lacked lowercase text.

The TI-99/4A’s CPU, motherboard, and ROM cartridge (“Solid State Software”) slot were built into a single console, along with the keyboard. The power regulator board is housed below and in front of the cartridge slot under the sloped area to the right of the keyboard. This area gets very hot so users commonly refer to it as the “coffee cup warmer.” The external power supply, which was different according to the country of sale, was merely a step-down transformer.

Available peripherals included a 5¼” floppy disk drive and controller, an RS-232 card comprising two serial ports and one parallel port, a P-code card for Pascal support, a thermal printer, anacoustic coupler, a tape drive using standard audio cassettes as media, and a 32 KB memory expansion card. The TI-99/4 was sold with both the computer and a monitor (a modified 13″ Zenith color TV) as Texas Instruments could not get their RF modulator approved by the FCC in time. The TI-99/4A did ship with an RF modulator.

In the early 1980s, TI was known as a pioneer in speech synthesis, and a highly popular plug-in speech synthesizer module was available for the TI-99/4 and 4A. Speech synthesizers were offered free with the purchase of a number of cartridges and were used by many TI-written video games (notable titles offered with speech during this promotion were Alpiner and Parsec). The synthesizer used a variant of linear predictive coding and had a small in-built vocabulary.

The original intent was to release small cartridges that plugged directly into the synthesizer unit, which would increase the device’s built-in vocabulary. However, the success of software text-to-speech in the Terminal Emulator II cartridge cancelled that plan. Most speech synthesizers were still shipped with the door that opened on the top, although very few had the connector inside. There are no known speech modules in existence for those few units with the connector.

In many games (mostly those produced by TI), the speech synthesizer had relatively realistic voices. For example, Alpiner’s speech included male and female voices and could be quite sarcastic when the player made a bad move.


IBM PC 5150 (1981) – IBM (International Business Machines)

IBM PC 5150 Computer (1981)

IBM PC 5150 Computer

The IBM Personal Computer, commonly known as the IBM PC, is the original version and progenitor of the IBM PC compatible hardware platform. It is IBM model number 5150, and was introduced on August 12, 1981. It was created by a team of engineers and designers under the direction of Don Estridge of the IBM Entry Systems Division in Boca Raton, Florida.

Alongside “microcomputer” and “home computer”, the term “personal computer” was already in use before 1981. It was used as early as 1972 to characterize Xerox PARC’s Alto. However, because of the success of the IBM Personal Computer, the term PC came to mean more specifically a microcomputer compatible with IBM’s PC products.

International Business Machines (IBM) was in 1981 one of the world’s largest companies, and dominated the computer industry. Perhaps distracted by a long-running antitrust lawsuit, however, it completely missed the fast-growing minicomputer market during the 1970s. It wished to avoid the same outcome with the new personal computer market, dominated by the Commodore PET, Atari 8-bit family, Apple II, Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80s, and various CP/M machines.

Desktop sized programmable calculators by Hewlett-Packard had evolved into the HP 9830 BASIC language computer by 1972. In 1973 the IBM Los Gatos Scientific Center developed a portable computer prototype called SCAMP (Special Computer APL Machine Portable) based on the IBM PALM processor with a Philips compact cassette drive, small CRT and full function keyboard.

SCAMP emulated an IBM 1130 minicomputer in order to run APL1130. In 1973 APL was generally available only on mainframe computers, and most desktop sized microcomputers such as the Wang 2200 or HP 9800 offered only BASIC. Because SCAMP was the first to emulate APL1130 performance on a portable, single user computer, PC Magazine in 1983 designated SCAMP a “revolutionary concept” and “the world’s first personal computer”.

This seminal, single use portable computer now resides in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.


Epson HX-20 (1981) – Epson – Generally regarded as the first Laptop Computer

Epson HX-20 (1981)

Epson HX-20 Computer

The Epson HX-20 (also known as the HC-20) is generally regarded as the first laptop computer, announced in November 1981, although first sold widely in 1983. Hailed by BusinessWeek magazine as the “fourth revolution in personal computing”, it is generally considered both the first notebook and handheld computer.

With about the footprint of an A4 size page, the Epson HX-20 features a full-transit keyboard, rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries, a built-in 120 × 32-pixel LCD (smaller than that on many mobile phones today) which allowed 4 lines of 20 characters, a calculator-size dot-matrix printer, the EPSON BASIC programming language, two Hitachi 6301 CPUs at 614 kHz which is essentially a souped up Motorola 6801, 16 kB RAM expandable to 32 kB, two RS-232 ports at a maximum of 4800 bits/s for the first 8-pin DIN connector intended for modem or serial printer with the second port capable of 38400 bits/s using a 5-pin DIN connector which was mainly for use with external floppy drive and video display an early concept of docking station, a 300 bit/s acoustic coupler was available, built-in microcassette drive, barcode reader connector.

Uses a proprietary operating system, which consists of the EPSON BASIC interpreter and a system monitor program, and weighs approximately 1.6 kg. Known colours of the machine are silver and cream, while some prototypes were dark grey. The HX-20 was supplied with a grey or brown carry case. An external acoustic coupler, the CX-20, was available for the HX-20, as was an external floppy disk drive, the TF-20, and an external speech synthesis Augmentative Communication Device (ACD), ‘RealVoice’.

Another extension was the serially connected 40 x 24 character video. It used a special protocol, EPSP, which was also used by the external floppy disk drive. The battery life of the HX-20 was approximately 50 hours running BASIC and less using the microcassette, printer or RS-232. The data integrity could be preserved in the 4.0 – 6.0 V range. The power supply was rated for 8 W. Operating and charging it would tolerate 5 – 35 °C. Data integrity could be preserved at -5 – 40 °C. The HX-20 could be stored between -20 – 60 °C.


BBC Micro (1981) – Acorn Computers

BBC Micro Computer (1981) - Acorn Computers

BBC Micro Computer

The BBC Microcomputer System, or BBC Micro, was a series of microcomputers and associated peripherals designed and built by the Acorn Computer company for the BBC Computer Literacy Project, operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Designed with an emphasis on education, it was notable for its ruggedness, expandability and the quality of its operating system.

After the Literacy Project’s call for bids for a computer to accompany the TV programmes and literature, Acorn won the contract with theProton, a successor of its Atom computer prototyped at short notice. Renamed the BBC Micro, the system was adopted by most schools in the United Kingdom, changing Acorn’s fortunes. It was also moderately successful as a home computer in the UK despite its high cost.

Acorn also employed the machine to simulate and develop the ARM architecture which is much used for embedded systems. Globally, as of 2013, ARM is the most widely used 32-bit instruction set architecture in terms of quantity produced.

While nine models were eventually produced with the BBC brand, the term “BBC Micro” is usually used colloquially to refer to the first six (Model A, B, B+64, B+128, Master 128, and Master Compact), with the subsequent models considered as part of Acorn’s Archimedes series.


Timex Sinclair 1000 (1982) – Timex Sinclair

Timex Sinclair 1000 (1982) - Timex Sinclair

Timex Sinclair 1000 Computer

The Timex Sinclair 1000 (TS1000) was the first computer produced by Timex Sinclair, a joint-venture between Timex Corporation andSinclair Research. It was launched in July 1982.

The TS1000 was a slightly-modified Sinclair ZX81 with an NTSC RF modulator instead of a UK PAL (Units sold in Portugal have a PAL RF modulator) device and the onboard RAM doubled to 2K. The TS1000’s casing had slightly more internal shielding but remained the same as Sinclair’s, including the membrane keyboard. It had black-and-white graphics and no sound. It was followed by an improved version, the Timex Sinclair 1500.

Like the Sinclair ZX81, the TS1000 used a form of BASIC as its primary interface and programming language. To make the membrane keyboard less cumbersome for program entry, the TS1000 used a shortcut system of one-letter “keywords” for most commands (e.g. pressing “P” while the cursor was in “keyword mode” would generate the keyword “PRINT”). Some keywords required a short sequence of keystrokes (e.g. SHIFT-ENTER S would generate the keyword “LPRINT”). The TS1000 clued the user in on what to expect by changing the cursor to reflect the current input mode.

The TS1000 sold for $99.95 in the US when it debuted, making it the cheapest home computer to date at the time of its launch (its advertising angle was “the first computer under $100”.) This pricing initiated a price war with Commodore International, who quickly reduced the price of its VIC-20 to match and later announced a trade-in program offering $100 for any competing computer toward the purchase of a Commodore 64. Since the TS1000 was selling for $49 by this time, many customers bought them for the sole purpose of trading it in to Commodore.


Kaypro II (1982) – Kaypro Corporation

Kaypro II Computer (1982)

Kaypro II Computer

Kaypro Corporation, commonly called Kaypro, was an American home/personal computer manufacturer of the 1980s. The company was founded by Non-Linear Systems to develop computers to compete with the then-popular Osborne 1 portable microcomputer. Kaypro produced a line of rugged, portable CP/M-based computers sold with an extensive software bundle which supplanted its competitors and quickly became one of the top-selling personal computer lines of the early 1980s.

While exceptionally loyal to its original consumer base, Kaypro was slow to adapt to the changing computer market and the advent of IBM PC compatible technology. It faded from the mainstream before the end of the decade and was eventually forced into filing for bankruptcy in 1992.

Kaypro began as Non-Linear Systems, a maker of electronic test equipment, founded in 1952 by Andrew Kay, the inventor of the digital voltmeter.

In 1981, Non-Linear Systems began designing a personal computer, called KayComp, that would compete with the popular Osborne 1 transportable microcomputer. In 1982, Non-Linear Systems organized a daughter company named the Kaypro Corporation and rechristened the computer with the same name.

The first product, the Kaypro II, carried the Roman-numeral designation because one of the most popular microcomputers at the time was the Apple II. The Kaypro II was designed to be portable like the Osborne. (When battery-powered laptop computers became available, the larger machines came to be calledtransportable or luggable, rather than portable.)

Set in an aluminum case, it weighed 29 pounds (13 kilograms) and was equipped with a Zilog Z80 microprocessor, 64 kilobytes of RAM, and two 5¼-inch double-density floppy-disk drives. It ran on Digital Research, Inc.’s CP/M operating system, and sold for about US$1,795.00.


Rainbow 100 (1982) – DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation)

DEC Rainbow 100 (1982) - Digital Equipment Corporation

Rainbow 100 Computer

The Rainbow 100 was a microcomputer introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1982. This desktop unit had the video-terminal display circuitry from the VT102, a video monitor similar to the VT220 in a dual-CPU box with both 4 MHz Zilog Z80 and 4.81 MHz Intel 8088CPUs. The Rainbow 100 was a triple-use machine: VT102 mode, 8-bit CP/M mode (using the Z80), and 16-bit CP/M-86 or MS-DOS mode using the 8088.

The Rainbow came in three models, the 100A, 100B and 100+. The “A” model was the first released, followed later by the “B” model. The most noticeable differences between the two models were the firmware and slight hardware changes. The systems were referred to with model numbersPC-100A and PC-100B respectively; later “B” models were also designated PC-100B2.

The Rainbow contained two separate data buses controlled by the Zilog Z80 and the Intel 8088 respectively. The buses exchanged information via a shared 62 kB memory.

When not executing 8-bit code, the Zilog Z80 was used for floppy disk access. The 8088 bus was used for control of all other subsystems, including graphics, hard disk access, and communications. While it may have been theoretically possible to load Z80 binary code into the Rainbow to execute alongside 8088 code, this procedure has never been demonstrated.

The 100A model shipped with 64 kB memory on the motherboard, while the 100B had 128 KB memory on the motherboard. Daughterboards were available from Digital Equipment Corporation that could increase system memory with up to an additional 768 kB.


ZX Spectrum (1982) – Sinclair Research Ltd.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1982)

ZX Spectrum Computer

The ZX Spectrum (pronounced “Zed-Ex”) is an 8-bit personal home computer released in the United Kingdom in 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd.

Referred to during development as the ZX81 Colour and ZX82, the machine was launched as the ZX Spectrum by Sinclair to highlight the machine’s colour display, compared with the black-and-white of its predecessor, the ZX81. The Spectrum was ultimately released as eight different models, ranging from the entry-level model with 16 kB RAM released in 1982 to the ZX Spectrum +3 with 128 kB RAM and built-in floppy disk drive in 1987; together they sold in excess of 5 million units worldwide (not counting numerous clones).

The Spectrum was among the first mainstream audience home computers in the UK, similar in significance to the Commodore 64 in the USA. The introduction of the ZX Spectrum led to a boom in companies producing software and hardware for the machine, the effects of which are still seen; some credit it as the machine which launched the UK IT industry. Licensing deals and clones followed, and earned Clive Sinclair a knighthood for “services to British industry”.

The Commodore 64, Oric-1 and Atmos, BBC Microcomputer and later the Amstrad CPC range were major rivals to the Spectrum in the UK market during the early 1980s. Over 24,000 software titles have been released since the Spectrum’s launch and new titles continue to be released, with over 100 new ones in 2012.


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