Micro Men and the birth and death of the personal computer – 1980 to 1985

Last night I watched Micro Men, another in the recent BBC series of dramatised portrayals of historical events from the 1970’s and 80’s, such as Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley.

This was the story of the battle for dominance in the newly emerging personal computer market from in the early 1980’s. It was also a personal clash between eccentric inventor of the pocket calculator Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry (formerly his right hand man).

The film cleverly interwove news footage from the period and actors, effectively reawakening memories of my involvement in that era as a callow youth.

In particular I remember the excitement young people felt at the rapid development of the technology, and how we thought they would change the world. One scene from the seminal BBC Computer Programme talked about how personal computers would replace manual typewriters and much of the associated office paperwork. (here are some snippets). It was also something of a shock to remember how Britain led the world for that brief period, with by far the highest rate of ownership of personal computers. There was an optimism that this lead would give us an immense advantage in this newly emerging industry.

As with so many cutting edge technologies of course expectations far outstripped reality. As a ‘programming expert’ with 98 per cent in my Computer Science ‘O’ level, my father presented me with a brand new £99 Sinclair ZX81 and asked me to show him what it could do. My memory is a bit hazy on the details, but I seem to remember that its state of the art 1k of memory (compared to 2 gigabytes in today’s computers), allowed me to create a spreadsheet about 5 rows high and 16 columns wide. Unfortunately that didn’t leave any room for calculations or content.

However this did not dim my nerdish enthusiasm and I went on to study Computer Science at ‘A’ level using a Commodore Pet, and then to university on Apple II computers. It was only when I came to leave university and was pondering which model of personal PC to buy, that reality dawned. I remember my cousin asking me what I would use it for. Programming of course was the main purpose, but outside the learning environment that was not a practical application. Games were next, but the basic ones available did not appeal to me. The applications we take for granted today such as word processing and spreadsheets were not established at that time. I decided to save my £600 and wait for the technology to develop.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Today we are surrounded by personal computers which have profoundly affected how we live our lives. Whether it is the constant bombardment of emails via Blackberries, shopping over the Internet, sharing our lives through social networking, watching or listening to films, television or radio on our iPods and personal media players, meeting new life partners through internet dating (7.8 million in the UK alone), spending time in virtual realities like Second Life, or just computing on the move (I am writing this on the train sitting next to another laptop owner – who appears be writing a gripping novel – from my furtive glances)

So although the personal PC went from boom to bust in just five short years between 1980 and 1985, apparently taking its future promise with it, the long term impact of computers on our lives has been truly revolutionary.

The footnote at the end of the show reminded me of how the two companies at the centre of the story subsequently went in very different directions. Clive Sinclair returned to his obsession with creating the world’s first mass produced affordable electric car. And produced the legendary Sinclair C5, perhaps the single most spectacular failure in the history of personal transport with sales of less than 12,000.

However, the chip that powered Chris Curry’s Acorn computer went on to be developed into the ARM processor, which has gone on to become the most successful computer chip ever, with over 10 billion shipped to power the majority of mobile phones manufactured across the world.

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