‘Little’ computers

[ By Melanie Swalwell on December 17, 2013 | Filed under: Blog | Tagged with: , , ]

IBM released its personal computer in 1981.  Whilst this would be the system that would lead to ‘PC’ becoming a synonym for a computer sitting on a desktop, it was quite expensive.  Prices started at $1,565 (presumably USD) for a configuration without disk drives (Wikipedia).  Apples — destined for the school market — were also quite expensive (as were Compucolor’s, judging by this contribution).  These were out of the reach of many ‘computer curious’ households.  By comparison, the Vic20 went for NZ$495 and the Sinclair ZX81 for NZ$199 (November 1983, Computer Input).  Sega’s SC-3000 ($399 in Feb 1984), Tandy’s TRS-80, the Commodore 64, the Microbee (the kit went for AU$399 in 1982), and the Sinclair Spectrum were also comparatively affordable.  There were a plethora of brands, including the Exidy Sorceror, the Spectravideo, and the VZ200.  There were even local clones, such as the Dick Smith System 80 and CAT.  Many could simply be plugged into the home TV, if an external monitor was not available.

‘Serious’ computing magazines repeatedly published dismissive articles comparing these 8 bit microcomputers to toys, but the fact is that these inexpensive computers have an important place in games and computing history in Australia and New Zealand.  They appear to have been very popular with home consumers no doubt in part because of their smaller price tag (reliable ownership statistics do not exist).

Floppy disk drives were available for some of these machines, but people did not always purchase them, often because of the expense, and because it was possible to make do with cassette tape players or ‘datasettes’.  Even when there were some disk drives around, the fact that nearly everyone had a tape player meant that it made sense to continue to issue early games software on tape (Marentes).

What was the games computer in your house?  Did your household spend up big, or opt for a ‘little’ computer?  Was the purchase a big deal occasioning much research, or did it just arrive?  Did it plug into a (the?) TV or separate monitor?  What are your abiding memories of using it?  Please tell us your story, better still if you have pictures!

Reference: Nick Marentes interview, 27 November 2013.

6 thoughts on “‘Little’ computers

  1. We lived up the far north of New Zealand in a small country town called Kaeo. (“Kai-oh” for those wanting to know how to pronounce it). It was a small township (around 500 or so inhabitants, spread across miles and miles of farmland) – It had a primary school and a college (Whangaroa college)… From memory, around the end of 1980, the school got 2 Apple II’s. However, the only people allowed to use them were 5 kids who excelled in mathematics…

    In 1981, my parents knew a local Police officer who was selling computers as a side business… (There seemed to be a lot of that going on in the 1980’s – people reselling computers as a side business in their personal time). I had $200 saved in my bank account from years and years of banking small amounts of pocket money.

    Using my money, my parents purchased the ZX81, (ie. a then-11 year old buying their *own* computer (rather then the parents) and the only kid in school with one at home) and that as they say, was that…

    We tuned it into our TV in the living room. I recall sitting on the floor and typing in games every night. Within a week I was already writing simple maths games myself, and conversing with my teachers who were all suddenly quite interested in what I knew… So much for needing to be good at maths afterall! I was allowed to hang out in the computer room at last… The maths kids eventually went the opposite way, and spent all their time playing sports. Probably a healthier option, mind you… 🙂

    We did buy a cassette or two for the ZX81 – The only one game I remember was called “Orbit” (of which you can find game play video on Youtube surprisingly).

    Somewhere along the road, my parents got me a small 14″ black and white television that I used in my bedroom (I think because my parents were sick of me needing to use the family TV. lol!). Over the years, I think they got used to the annoying RF that would come from those machines and cause noise on the TV and Radio in the house.

    However where it was at, was writing your own games back then.

    In 1983, my parents upgraded my ZX81 to a 16k ZX Spectrum. That’s where everything just took off – I could play with colour, sound and much better games. I upgraded it to 48k after about a year, and got Manic Miner… I was a serious nerd by that stage, spending hours and hours in a darkened bedroom programming. My parents said I’d ruin my eyes from sitting to close to the screen – A couple of years later I ended up with glasses anyway (I don’t think it was related, tbh)

    The local appliance stores in Kerikeri also got into the trend as well, and started to sell Commodore gear… Along with one of my maths teachers. It was pretty clear that home computing was everywhere (even in the smallest of country towns).

    Since I had a computer, my parents ended up buying my brother a Vic20 – though while I was also programming, my brother was much more of a games player then a coder.

    So that’s where my life in computer gaming started – to be a game developer was a big dream, but I never really got there. It was all because of a cheap $200 home computer back in 1981.

    Nowadays I’m not much of a game player, though I may occasionally bring out the ZX Spectrum (which is actually built from parts found in the **same one** from almost 31 years ago now (yes, I am a hoarder of memories)) and play a little JetPac.

    My ZX81? I donated it to a friend about 7 or so years ago. As of today, he’s apparently still got it.

  2. I wanted to add a quick image to my post before. This is a modern photo (by the fact I have an MP3 player on top of the machine)

    However how this relates to my previous post is that what you see here is my **actual** machine I got back in the 80’s (yes, its the original that I talked about in my previous comments).

    The upgraded keyboard you see I had to get in the first year of owning it due to the keyboard membrane failing (because I upgraded its ram and then I couldn’t use the space key to jump in Manic Miner). I’ve held onto it for 30-something years, dragged it everywhere I moved to in a box alongside the rest of 30+ year old things.

    I had to repair the machine last year as it had died, but its a good look at the “real-deal”… Its the same machine I learnt to program on and that I played games on… It has an emotional and sentimental attraction, and that is why I’ve never gotten rid of it.

    Attached image:

  3. If anybody is curious about the price of home computers in New Zealand back in 1984, this is a selection of various advertisements I photographed from a couple of my Computer Input magazines (1984 editions) a few months back. Interesting how for the Atari at West City Computers, the Floppy drive is $100 more expensive then the actual Atari computer.

    This is usually why most people opted for cassette I’m sure… 🙂

    Attached image:

  4. I’m not sure, but I do know when I was working part time as in Admin at the city council in 1987, I was on a “good pay” of around $7 per hour. I can imagine it was less then that earlier on in the 80’s here.

  5. A quick google and according to some government NZ Statistics, the average household income in 1984 was around NZ$17000 a year. That sounds about right for a household with multiple incomes at the time.

    That means a home computer back then was a pretty big investment. If you splashed out on a full Atari setup – 800XL, 1050 FDD and a printer – we’re talking a month and a half’s income to pay for it.

    That ZX81 I got as a kid was from many years of savings, starting back in early primary school at around 5yrs (back then, saving money was something most schools had kids do – bring in their bank books, and the teacher would go and do the class banking).

    We’re talking around 6 or so years worth of tiny amounts, on average about $2.50. Which for a small kid was lots of money (back then we’re talking prices like a lollipop for 1c, and a comic book for 5c. For 10c you’d buy a BIG bag of lollies from the Dairy.)

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