Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation by Alex Wiltshire and John Short

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Being born in the early 70s, I reached the age where we develop interests just as the first cheaper home computers were coming in – the ZX81 and the Spectrum in my case – leading to a lifelong love of typing out reams of stuff and an interest in computing and programming with which I parted ways along the way, only to end up married to a developer. I thought we would both find this book interesting, and I was correct. 

All of the computers featured in this very nicely put together (sewn binding!) book come from the collection at The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, with the book being published in collaboration with the Centre, and the book itself has the feel of a very high-end exhibition catalogue. The writer Alex Wiltshire writes for many techy publications and has published or contributed to books about British software, Minecraft, etc., so is a safe pair of hands to steer the text. Mention must go to John Short’s great photography and the museum staff and designers who provided and selected the ephemera to photograph and feature around the computers themselves – there are so many fantastic images of peripherals, handbooks and adverts interspersed throughout the book.

We start off with a solid introduction on the history of the computer, from the mainframes and punched-card operated machines to the dawn of the microcomputer – mainly made from kits at first – and the silicon revolution. I loved the discussion of the magazines that printed out programs for you to type in – and to learn how to debug when the inevitable mistakes crept in, as I’ve always maintained that my good typing skills come from inputting all those endless lines of BASIC as a child!

Then we’re into the hundred machines themselves, and while the first two are early kits, the rest are machines you could buy and take home, dated from the 1960s to the early 1990s, with one leap forward to compare the design features of the Apple iMac with the sometimes highly utilitarian beige boxes that came before it. Each computer has at least one double-page spread, with details of the manufacturer, date, country of origin and some technical information, lovely colour photos and text explaining the machine and its inventors/designers. Some major pieces like the Spectrum have a larger section, and as I mentioned above, there are also great photos of the handbooks and ephemeral pieces that came with the machines, which can give a thrill of recognition after all these years.

Although it looks like it could be a book about design icons, it’s more about the innards. The piece on the front cover – the Intertec Superbrain from 1979 – has a lovely futuristic shape and is a worthy cover star, but as the author says,

IBM’s PC began to reshape the office computer market, its rectilinear beige box taking a sad precedence over Intertec’s futurism.

The book pulls together the strands of the constantly dividing and competing computer-building companies, tracing the explosion outwards from the first few companies such as Sinclair through staff feeling trapped and under-used and building out their own businesses. And yes, there are feuds, but it’s all written dispassionately, without taking sides, as good history should be. The linkages between different players who didn’t necessarily work together are also drawn out, with books shipped with machines teaching younger people to code and program and develop the software of the future.

There’s a great deal to learn here, I’m sure for even the most keen computer history buff. I hadn’t realised that portable (well, ‘portable’!) computers came in so early, but there’s the Compaq Portable from 1983 alongside a few other examples to prove me wrong. The Apple Macintosh Portable from 1989 was certainly not the style icon of the iMac and it’s interesting to see the development of the various companies that survived and their designs.

There’s no index, which I think is a bit of a shame, but otherwise this is a nicely put-together book with high design quality in itself, which is suitable for leafing through and picking out favourites or reading cover to cover.

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Liz Dexter had a ZX81 and a Spectrum and then the teacher’s pet choice, a BBC Model B. Her husband knew more of these computers than she did. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Alex Wiltshire and John Short, Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation (Thames & Hudson, 2020). 978-0500022160, 255 pp., col. Ill., hardback.

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Comments

  1. Ah – those old pre-WYSIWYG days. I remember first word-processing forays on a Wang, and having to count lines and spaces to get telephone numbers to print out in the right places on headed paper, and all that.

  2. I too used a typewriter in my teens, but when I was at school in the mid 1970’s I got to use the Burroughs 5700 mainframe at one of Edinburgh’s Universities. I still remember what was probably the zenith of punch card writers where you could part copy an existing card and then add new characters to the copy. At University in my UG degree years I had almost no access to computers at all, but for my PhD (early 1980’s) I had my own PDP 11-44 to work with. The first “PC” I came across was the DEC “Rainbow”. I wonder if that is covered in this book?

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