It’s hard to imagine that there was a time, not too long ago, when most people didn’t own a computer. But before the 1980s, there were no desktops, no laptops, and certainly no smartphones. At that time, computers were big, expensive and extremely limited in what they could do. There was no word processing, fast-moving colour graphics or sound effects, and the only people who knew how to use them were specialists in their field.
In the late 1970s, a few build-your-own computer kits became available for the hobbyist to play with, but these were little more than electronic calculators. Then, around 1980, electronics became advanced enough that it was possible to produce a small, affordable all-in-one home computer that could be connected up to the family television, and the home computer revolution began.
Here’s the story of the home computer revolution and how it altered the fabric of life in 1980s Britain.
The Sinclair ZX80
One of the entrepreneurs behind the first home computers was Sir Clive Sinclair (of C5 electric car fame), who offered the Sinclair ZX80 into this fledgling market. This was an extremely popular machine and a commercial success, even though it just had a tiny memory, displayed only a black and white picture and consumers had to learn a computer language before they could use it.
Its key to success was its low price. Other manufacturers such as Apple offered a far more advanced machine, the US-made Apple II, but this cost thousands of dollars. The ZX80 cost under a hundred pounds. Initially, the usefulness of home computers was limited by the very small amounts of memory available.
The computer games of the early 1980s were often text-based adventure games or had monochrome simple 2-D graphics such as computer chess. However, a race began to design better and faster machines. As the cost of electronic components started to plummet in the early 1980s, a multitude of companies rushed to design their own computers, each trying to outdo each other in both price and performance.
Boom and bust
Programmers took advantage of this boom and produced games such as Chuckie Egg, Jet Set Willy and Elite for popular computers of the day such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro. They were fun to play and addictive and they could be played at home, over and over, for free… after the initial purchase of course. The main use of home computers became playing games.
In the electronics industry, the falling costs of components allowed computer designers to produce faster, more sophisticated machines, which in turn led to more imaginative games. The demand for home computers in the early to mid-1980s turned into a multi-million-pound market.
But technology was improving at such a rate that manufacturers were in a frantic scrabble to keep up. By the time a company had designed, manufactured and marketed their latest model, technology had moved on and their rivals were already working on a better, faster, cheaper model. Companies were forced to aggressively slash prices in order to sell their stock, and a price war followed. By late 1983 the market became saturated and led to a crash which caused the downfall of many of the players both in the UK and the US. Although some companies collapsed, computers were here to stay, in a big way.
The IBM PC
At the end of the 1980s, when the dust had settled, there was one winner, the IBM Personal Computer or PC. The main reason for this was that the IBM designers had used existing components to keep the costs down, and had also made the design public.
The advantage of publishing the inner working of the PC meant that other manufacturers could make accessories for it and expand its capabilities. The downside for IBM was that after a time, manufacturers started to make their own copies of the PC. In this way, PC ownership spread far and wide and it came to dominate the market. The heart of most modern laptops and desktop computers today can trace the design of their microprocessor, or brain, back to the original IBM PC.
Games-playing on home computers proved to be so popular in the 1980s that it spawned a whole new industry – the video games industry – to develop and create titles for an expanding global market. Today, the UK video gaming industry alone is worth over 7 billion pounds a year. Games that were originally played on general-purpose home computers moved to dedicated games consoles, such as Microsoft’s Xbox series and Sony’s Playstation range. The most popular games titles of today such as Call Of Duty and Fortnite can trace their roots back to the first home computer games of the 1980s.
Smartphones have become the new home computers of today’s society. These ubiquitous devices are so much more than the games machines that their predecessors were used for. They are also communication hubs, social media centres and pocket cinemas. Even these devices can trace their ancestry to the 1980s home computer gold rush.
In 1987, the British company Acorn Computers designed a special microprocessor called ARM for their new Archimedes computer. Today, it is a version of that chip that is used to power most of the world’s smartphones and internet-connected devices. By 2021, 200 billion ARM chips had been sold.
Andrew Morten’s interest in electronics and software began at the age of 16 after buying his first computer and learning how to program. This led to a career in the electronics industry, where he worked on many engineering projects in the commercial and defence sectors, at companies such as Plessey, Racal and General Electric. He is now retired and lives in Leicestershire. He is the author of Amstrads and Ataris: UK Home Computers in the 1980s, published by Amberley Publishing.