Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Taking a trip down memory-chip lane

Filed under
Sci/Tech

REMEMBER your first time, when you sat in front of a keyboard and monochrome screen and joined a brave new world? You may have been playing Pong or Manic Miner, or carefully crafting your first lines of code. But you won't have forgotten the joy of discovering personal computers.

It's time to revisit your youth, because BBC Bs, ZX81s, Spectrums and Commodores are cool again, part of a wave of computing nostalgia. Today's stylish PCs may perform billions of calculations a second and store tens of billions of bytes of data, but for many, they have got nothing on the 32, 48 or 64-kilobyte machines that were the giants of the early 1980s.

This renewed interest in old-school computing is more than just a trip down memory-chip lane. Early computers are a part of our technological heritage, and also offer a unique perspective on how today's machines work. And within growing collections of original computers and home-made replicas, and the anecdote-filled web pages and blogs devoted to them, lies the equipment and expertise that will one day help unlock our past by reading countless computer files stored in outmoded formats.

Enthusiasts say they are inspired by old machines not just because the computer era was ushered in by monumental developments in electronics, mathematics and information science but also because the digital computer changed the course of the 20th century. During the second world war one of the earliest electronic computers, Colossus, enabled Allied code breakers in the UK to decipher Nazi messages. In 1941 another of the earliest programmable machines, ENIAC, was used by the US army to calculate the trajectory of ballistic weapons with unprecedented accuracy. The rest, as they say, is history.

"They hark back to another time," says Hamish Carmichael, secretary of the UK's Computer Conservation Society, which works with the Science Museum in London to restore and rebuild classic machines. "And there's an element of detective work, in finding out how things were done originally." The society has helped the museum reconstruct the oldest working computer anywhere, an original Pegasus, made by British firm Ferranti in 1956. And it is working on an even older machine, an Elliot 403 dating from 1955.

What computers did for the military, they also did for the workplace, although the earliest models were a far cry from today's sleek laptops. The first commercial machine, UNIVAC I, was delivered to the US census bureau in 1951. Much larger than an SUV, it contained 2500 vacuum tubes and consumed 125 kilowatts of power, yet could perform just 1905 operations per second and store 1000 different characters.

Most enthusiasts, however, are more familiar with the computers that appeared in their homes during the 1970s and 1980s. The Altair 8800 is often credited with kick-starting the personal computer revolution. Sold in kit form in 1975, the 8800 consisted of several circuit boards slotted together inside a blue box the size of an old record player.

Programming the 8800 involved configuring several switches to correspond to a primitive command and then flicking another to store it in the computer's memory. The designers at Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) only expected to sell a few hundred kits to keen electronics hobbyists. But the idea of owning a programmable "electronic brain" proved so irresistible that they received thousands of orders for kits within weeks of launch.

Build your own

Full Story.

More in Tux Machines

Open source runs Croatia’s geospatial services platforms

Croatia’s Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection has become one of the country’s major users of open source solutions. The software is making possible two geospatial service platforms on biodiversity and environmental protection, unveiled in May. Read more

today's leftovers

  • Three months with a Chromebook computer
    Chromebooks have become incredibly popular among some users, as you can see from Amazon's list of bestselling Chromebooks. One user decided to use a Chromebook as his primary computing device for three months, and found that it worked extremely well for him. [...] Debian Linux is known as a distribution that supports lots of different hardware, but now the Debian developers have announced the removal of support for the SPARC hardware architecture.
  • New Target for Mobile App Devs: Plasma Mobile on Linux
  • New Plasma Mobile, New Security Issues
    Jonathan Riddell said the hacking was frustrating at first, but Martin Gräßlin was able to get the system going with Wayland and KWin. Gräßlin said Plasma Mobile is the first product to use Wayland by default and the only reason Wayland is mature enough to be included as a technical preview in upcoming Plasma 5.4. They're confident Android apps will run on it at some point as well.
  • KDE Creates Plasma Mobile, A KDE Based Operating System For Mobile Phones
    As you may know, the KDE developers have created Plasma Phone UI, a Linux based operating based on Ubuntu Touch and Kubuntu Linux. The OS is open-source, has an user-friendly interface and provides a customizable platform for mobile devices. For now, KDE’s mobile OS is just a prototype and can be tested on the LG Nexus 5.
  • GSoC ’15 Post #5: Port Complete – Time for the Real Deal
    With loads of help from people on #kde-devel, we finally managed to complete the KDE Network Filesharing port to KF5. Wasn’t easy, given that this was my first time porting frameworks, but it was real fun. Apart from apol’s blogpost shared in my last post, here’s another post that was immensely helpful to me while porting: Porting a KControl Module to KF5.
  • Gnome Pie 0.6.3 (Circular Application Launcher) Brings New Features And Bug-Fixes
    As you may know, Gnome Pie is a circular application launcher, enabling the users to easily access their favorite apps, which they have added to the pie. For usage information, see this link.
  • Gnome 3.18 Will Include A News Reader App
  • ExLight Distro Brings Enlightenment 0.19.7 and Linux Kernel 4.0 to Ubuntu 15.04
    On July 26, Arne Exton, the creator of numerous distributions of GNU/Linux as well as various Android-x86 Live DVDs, was more than proud to announce the immediate availability for download of a new build for his ExLight Linux distribution.
  • OpenSUSE Leap 42 Will Be An OpenSUSE Flavor For The Users That Need A Stable System
  • Very slow ssh logins on Fedora 22
    I’ve recently set up a Fedora 22 firewall/router at home (more on that later) and I noticed that remote ssh logins were extremely slow. In addition, sudo commands seemed to stall out for the same amount of time (about 25-30 seconds).
  • Debian Dropping SPARC Support
    While Debian supports many CPU architectures, it's working to remove support for the Sun/Oracle SPARC architecture. As of this weekend, Debian has dropped SPARC from their unstable, experimental, and jessie-updates archives.
  • Ubuntu Touch OTA-5 Update Brings Double Battery Life On Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition
  • Ubuntu Phone Gets Blasted In Reviews This Week
  • 3.5-inch SBC runs Yocto on Braswell and 6 Watts
    Aaeon’s Yocto Linux ready, 3.5-inch “GENE-BSW5″ SBC offers Intel Braswell CPUs, dual GbE ports, six serial ports, and mini-PCIe, SATA, and mSATA expansion.
  • Not Learning Unix is a Mistake
    It has occurred to me that not learning Unix is a grave mistake. My relatively early exposure to Unix was important. I may not have appreciated Linux as much or even at all if I hadn't had that ability to experiment at home with Xenix. Learning about Unix develops new mental muscles like playing a musical instrument or learning a new language. But learning these new processes becomes more difficult with age. To me the exact technical details are less important. It does not really matter if you are a Linux user or if you use one of the BSDs or even something more exotic like Plan 9. The important thing is you can learn new concepts from what I will broadly refer to as the Unix/Internet Community.
  • Mmm, what's that smell, Google+? Yes it's death: Google unhooks 'social network' from YouTube
    Google is no longer forcing Google+ on the world: people will be able to log into YouTube, and other Googley services, without having to create mandatory Google+ profiles. From now on, only those who deliberately sign up for Google+ will create profiles on the ghost town of a social network. Previously, Google harassed users of YouTube, Gmail and so on, to convert their accounts into Google+ accounts, a move obviously designed to boost G+'s sad numbers. It didn't go down very well at all – a lot of folks hated it.
  • Google to block access to unofficial autocomplete API
    Google has decided the autocomplete API it informally offers will no longer be available for “unauthorised” users as of August 10th.

Leftovers: Software

today's howtos