Category Archives: Retro

BBC Computer Literacy Project available on iPlayer

Original article by Rob Thubron on https://www.techspot.com/news/75281-bbc-makes-computer-literacy-project-archives-available-public.html

In context: For many people in the 1980s, everything they thought they knew about I.T. came from War Games. In the UK, the BBC tried to change this with the ‘Computer Literacy Project,’ which included a series of TV programs that “inspired a generation of coders,” and led to the commissioning of its own computer, the Micro. Now, it is opening up the project’s archives to the public.
The project ran from 1980 to 1989, with the TV shows introducing much of the UK to the world of computers. Some famous guests included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, and there was plenty of coverage of machines such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

But the most significant element of the Computer Literacy Project was its introduction of the 8-bit BBC Micro. Part of the UK government’s plans to place microcomputers in schools, Cambridge-based Acorn created the BBC-branded machine, which was released in 1981 and sold until 1994. It featured a 2MHz CPU and 16 – 32 KB of memory. Demand for the Micro was so great that the accompanying 10-part TV series was delayed for a month.

Steve Furber, who led the design of the BBC Micro and the first Arm chip, said: “The BBC Micro not only gave folk access to a computer, but it also gave them easy access to its inner workings, something that has been lost with most of today’s very sophisticated technology.”

The BBC Micro ended up in an estimated 60 percent of UK primary schools and 85 percent of secondary schools and was still being used up until the early 1990s.

Those interested in a piece of tech history can check out any of the 267 shows, the BBC Micro’s 166 pieces of original software, and over 2,509 clips for free right here. It will be available for the next three months, after which time the BBC will decide whether to turn it into a permanent feature.
https://computer-literacy-project.pilots.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk/

Sir Clive dragged into ZX Spectrum reboot battle

A fresh war of words has erupted over at ailing ZX Spectrum reboot firm Retro Computers Ltd – this time over the corporate involvement of legendary British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair himself.

The latest squabble over the company boils down to a three-way shareholder fight between former MD Paul Andrews and former CTO Chris Smith, current chairman David Levy, and Sinclair Research Ltd (SRL), which is Sir Clive’s corporate presence. Each shareholder owns a quarter of the company, with Andrews and Smith acting in lockstep.

This is a bitter tug of war with Sir Clive, daddy of the original ZX Spectrum console of the 1980s (as well as 1985’s heroic ‘leccypedalo Sinclair C5), serving as the rope.

RCL, as regular readers know, is the company that was supposed to have delivered a ZX Spectrum-themed handheld game console, called the Vega+, to about 4,500 people who paid money for the product via crowdfunding platform Indiegogo two years ago. Since then the firm has delivered nothing, amid excuses and recriminations flying back and forth over what happened to the £513,000 paid to RCL by its customers.

What should have been a retro-themed product that sold like hot cakes and brought joy to greybeard gamers all over Blighty has descended into a horrible, stinking mess that sullies the Spectrum legacy. The struggle for control of RCL is a marker not only for thousands of customers’ monies, but the very business model behind crowdfunded products – and for what happens when that crowdfunding process goes wrong.

A pile of cash, Sir Clive, and that console
Andrews and Smith are trying to remove Levy as a director of RCL, along with those Levy appointed as directors after the former pair quit the company in April 2016. They want to do this by calling a shareholders’ meeting and voting Levy off the board. Naturally Levy is resisting this attempt to topple him.

With Andrews and Smith controlling 50 per cent of the company, and Levy controlling 25 per cent, the crucial question is who does Sinclair, with the remaining 25 per cent stake in the firm, support? Whoever keeps Sir Clive on their side will be in control of RCL – and the £513,000 that is supposedly still in its bank account.

If SRL opposes Andrews and Smith’s attempt to replace Levy, then the status quo remains.

A press release issued a week ago by Andrews and Smith stated that SRL was backing them. RCL, however, has hit back with a statement of its own, with Levy telling El Reg yesterday:

For the avoidance of confusion and doubt, we are pleased to report that Sinclair Research Ltd have advised us that their company is NOT intending to vote for removing the existing directors and that the position of Sinclair Research Ltd is NOT as stated in the “Joint Press Release” of April 27th, 2018.

Furthermore, Andrews and Smith simultaneously issued a notice to the current board signed only by Smith and Andrews, equating to 50 per cent of the shareholding. Their notice stated the business of the shareholders meeting would be to remove all of the current “members”, i.e. the shareholders of the company and not in fact the Directors.

Andrews and Smith insisted last week’s statement about receiving support from SRL was accurate when they issued it.

We have asked the SRL company secretary what Sinclair Research Ltd’s position is on this squabble but have received no reply at the time of writing. SRL itself has three directors listed at Companies House: Sir Clive; his partner Elaine Millar; and Robert Freestone, the company secretary.

It appears likely to El Reg that a behind-the-scenes battle to secure the hearts and minds of Sir Clive and Millar has been taking place between Andrews and Levy.

Who’s trying to do what here, and why?
The Register understands Andrews (and Smith’s) position is that RCL’s current directors, under Levy, are trying to mislead customers about whether the Vega+ will ever be delivered, with the duo wanting to take back control of the firm they helped found in order to closely examine its books.

Some of RCL’s customers have filed small claims court cases against the company to try and get their money back, as The Register knows.

For his part, Levy disputes Andrews’ allegations and has consistently insisted RCL will deliver, blaming Andrews and Smith for the previous missed delivery deadlines. He has claimed they are trying to destroy the company as revenge for Levy forcing one-time RCL retail distributor Cornerstone Media into liquidation and bankrupting its sole director, Nick Cooper – a personal friend of Andrews’.

Despite public fears that RCL would fold and deliver nothing, the company has repeatedly insisted it will make and distribute the consoles. Its latest pledge is that it will ship some of them by 12 May, though previous self-imposed deadlines have repeatedly sailed past with no action being taken.

Lurking in the background of all this is Indiegogo itself, which is trying to limit the PR damage caused by RCL to its own business model after Luton County Court ruled that the platform’s terms and conditions weren’t relevant and that “backers” were actually customers with a legally enforceable contract of sale. If RCL fails to deliver by the end of May, Indiegogo has pledged that it will send in a debt collection agency on customers’ behalf.

None of the current maneuvering appears likely to bring forward deliveries of the original Vega+. Recently RCL has begun alluding to the delivery of a Vega+ V2 instead of the plain old Vega+, which suggests the product that will appear may not be the same as the one originally offered and paid for. ®

Original Article:- Gareth Corfield 4 May 2018, sourced from,
https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/05/04/sir_clive_sinclair_has_been_dragged_into_the_zx_spectrum_reboot_battle/

Computers I’ve owned – Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Well it’s been 35 years since the original Sinclair ZX Spectrum was launched so i think it’s only fair to pair homage to it with my latest addition to the Computers i’ve owned section.

I’ve actually owned a few of these, albeit in there original Sinclair incarnation pre Amstrad buy out of the company in 1986 & later the +3 model.  Many people may not know this but now the Amstrad brand is now owned by Sky TV & with it they inherit all the rights to the Sinclair product line. Viglen of course absorbed the computer side of Amstrad as well, although this is it’s PC & Word processor division but i believe the Sinclair name is now still property of Sky itself as they bought out Amstrad mainly to continue development of the TV receiver boxes.

The ZX Spectrum 8-bit (Z80A) computer was released in 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd. Originally released in 16K and also a 48K version which was the one to have.  The Spectrum evolved through a variety of versions including the Spectrum+ which added a better Sinclair QL style keyboard to the original board following criticism about the rubber key dead flesh feeling keyboard. The + model also featured a reset switch was just a push button which shorted out the circuit board to reset the machine.. basic but it did the job. Also, the 16k model wasn’t transferred with the upgraded keyboard to the Spectrum+ & killed off.  The higher spec (& now rarer) Spectrum 128 (128K RAM), the +2 with fitted tape drive), and +3 which was essentailly identical to the +2 model but came with a 3 inch Amstrad floppy drive instead. Notably, the latter two systems we created by Amstrad & not Sinclair.
The Spectrum is based on a Zilog Z80 A CPU running at 3.5 MHz. The original model had 16 KB (16×1024 bytes) of ROM and either 16 KB or 48 KB of RAM depending on which model you bought although why would you buy the 16k version?   Video is done through a built in RF Modulator – no extenal modulator to use the computer on a TV by converting a monitor output like on similar computers of the era such as the VIC20 etc.  Sound on the original Spectrum was not produced through the TV however, instead the sound was done through an internal bleeper which was basically a small mono headphone type speaker fixed to the main board although if you had the right leads & a TV with an external audio in, you could use the “Ear” port on the unit to send sound to a TV or amplifier, but would you really want to?   The “ear” port can drive headphones as we say but it’s main function was to send save files to a tape recorder and the other port for connecting a domestic tape recorder so you could load from cassette tape.

I bought my 1st spectrum when i was about 16 years old, I bought it from an old college friend for a bargain 2nd hand price of (if i remember correctly) about £35 which at the time was a weeks income to me.  It was an original 48k model with everything included, tape recorder, leads, loads & loads of games on cassette & some original Sinclair software.  I also learned a lot about computer repair from the Spectrum as i was training in electronics at the time & having took the lid off i wanted to know what each part of the computer board was doing.

Later, i then acquired an old 16k model which i upgraded to 48k by installing the additional memory chips Although as time went on the keyboard was not functional, i’d replaced the membrane (which was the common problem) but it seemed to be the plastic casing had warped not allowing for good key contact. As luck would have it i managed to pick up a Spectrum+ 48 which had a good keyboard however the main board was on it’s last legs so i transferred the upgraded 16k board into the 48k keyboard.  The last unit i acquired was an Amstrad variation.  the Spectrum +3 with working disk drive – many of the drives on +3 models were rumoured to fail quite often & it’s sometimes said because Amstrad used the better models for the CPC range or the PCW machines, alhough personally i can’t see any difference & think many of the failures were down to abuse rather than mechanical or electrical gizmo’s failing because the machines were still seen more as a toy than the other Amstrad machines.

There was also the original 128k version which i never owned, mainly as i was put off because the keyboard had a huge heatsink down the side which used to give off lots of heat.. health & safety today probably wouldn’t allow such a thing, however i bet it was nice in winter & saved on the heating bills in those cold 1980’s winters in many schoolboy’s bedrooms.

The +3 was a good machine, however i was a bit limited as i couldn’t find a lead to connect a cassette recorder so i was restricted to the disks i got with the machine & hand programming as the majoity of games etc were still on cassette & usually sold in many high street newsagents & petrol stations for just £1.99 or £2.99 by then. but with a decent keyboard & real computer feel compared to it’s predecessor, programming by hand wasn’t a problem.  Both the Spectrum +2, & +3 had two BASIC modes, the 48k BASIC to remain compatible with the original rubber keyed model & the 128k mode from the 128k with the heatsink.  The +3 however was a close cousin of the CPC464 / CPC664 & CPCP6128 especially in the way it loaded from the disk drive as the spectrum after all was designed to be only used with cassette tapes.

I later discovered that original Spectrum games could be downloaded & played on the Amstrad emailer although these days i mostly use emulation or remakes.

I really could go on for ages talking about the Spectrum & how i cut my teeth in computer repair with it, but i’ll save that for further updates.  I will howeer urge anyone into 8 bit machines to watch the Docudrama “Micro Men” which you can view here.  I will however leave you with a clip above of the programme click which sir Clive tells us how the British computer industry boomed before the market got gobbled up in the consumer world of Microsoft & the likes.

 

 

Computers I’ve owned – Amiga 500

I actually owned 2, 1 broke down & was used for parts when i obtained another one which i kept u until the late 1990s.  The Commodore’s Amiga 500 was the low-end version of the Amiga range of the time.  It was a fairly easy machine to fix & maintain as many (if not all) of the ICs (system chips) were mounted on sockets so repairs often meant removing the cover & prise out the old broken chip & replace or test with a new one.  Like the 8 bit days where the ZX Spectrum & Commodore 64 were rival machines, the main rival of the Amiga was the Atari’s 520/1040 ST range. The A500 was superior in almost every area, apart from its MIDI capabilities and the disk drive, which was not only slow but very noisy as well and a bitter feud quickly developed between owners of these rival machines.

16 bit technology overtook 8 bit tech which in the late 80’s was still very popular, but meant users had to learn a new set of skills which were closer to IBM PC use of the era as the machine used a disc loaded rather than ROM based OS which was called  Commodore’s “AmigaOS” & was essentially Kickstart firmware and the software called Workbench provided on disk. The Spectrum / CPC464 & C64 8 bit machines were still very popular as budget gaming machines with re-released or games still obtainable from many outlets for £1.99 or £2.99, some of which were ported from Arcade or 16 bit versions but of a lot lower resolution or sound & colour pallette. The A500 spec is close to the Amiga 1000, the main internal change is  in memory  256 KB to 512 KB and an additional of I/O chip that controls the disk drive and also performs some of the address decoding. This chip also featured in the A2000 which was the top of the range machine in the range from the post 8 bit era.

The A500 was an easy machine to upgrade than both the ST and oter Amigas – no more having to send the machine away for upgrades or buying newer models – as it had an expansion port located in the bottom of the case. Owners could simply insert a memory card which contained any extra RAM or add on. The popularity of this upgrade meant that more 1 MB software (both 1 MB versions of 512 KB software and 1 MB only software) was released for the Amiga than the ST, which had to be taken apart to expand the memory.  I actually discovered as well that taking the machine apart there were some additional empty IC bays to add additional memory, in fact i removed the IC’s from the add-on memory card I had & slotted them into the main motherboard, this freeing up the expansion slot. The machine also featured the Motorola 68000 processor running at just over 7MHZ on the European / UK based PAL system which is actually a 32 bit capable processor but only used 16bit addressing in the Amiga.

The A500 in my experience was ery similar to the older VIC20 i owned, whereby you could connect a dedicated monitor (which were still very expensive at the time} or connect an RF modulator to plug into the family TV or the portable in the bedroom – remember these were the days most people culd only afford to have 1 colour TV & smaller portables used in the bedroom were mostly black & white.

Although the machine was discontinued in 1991, at the time i was still using some 8 bit machines for games & such simply due to the huge catalogue & the cost of the games, although game piracy on the Amiga & Atari ST was rife with copied games being the norm for many Amiga users.. a practice almost thwarted by use of password protection such as magazine or  game manual word identity e.g “on page 12 of the manual, what is the 4th word on the 7th line”.. which was great if you owned the original but proved tricky with emulation in recent times or where you didn’t have the manual or magzine because it got lost or ruined, or even thrown away when your parents decided to tidy up.
To me the Amiga was very much a more business machine than games machine, which i used the Amiga more to do graphic creating or even basic letter writing or the like – although i didn’t have a printer so had to go with handful of disks to a mate or down the library to get stuff printed, as again, printers were an expensive add on.

The computer itself will go down as a classic & more standardised components & connections were being used. 9 pin Serial ports, parallel port, RCA audio etc in common with the IBM PC of the time.  Despite the Amiga range featuring many more desktop computers & even a games console (the CD32) including the final desktop machine, the Amiga 4000 which was probably as good as any high spec IBM PC of the mid 1990s, the A500 was probably the most popular & sadly In 1994, Commodore filed for bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by a German PC manufacturer called ESCOM, who created the subsidiary company Amiga Technologies. They in turn went bankrupt in 1997. The Amiga will have a great legacy & has been used for many things from TV graphics, creating music videos & even used by NASA during their lifetime in the computer market.

Computers I’ve owned – Binatone TV Master Mk-IV plus 2

OK not strictly a computer but a retro pong based machine & was a very popular ‘tennis’ game console from the late seventies, first manufactured in 1976 by Binatone. The Binatone  TV Master Mark IV, was one of the most popular in the UK.

tvmasterLike the dozens of other TV games that hit the shops in the 70s, it would play ‘Pong’ style games (Pong being the worlds 1st ‘popular’ arcade videogame!) made famous in the arcades and homes by Atari & such. It’s a monochrome console, since many people still owned black & white TV’s, and was cheaper to produce being based around the same AY-3-8500 (TV Game on Chip) that was used in almost every other TV game, and hence was also affordable, costing from memory about £15 to buy from new.

At the time  it was quite a futuristic looking machine as a lot of games consoles (including the Atari2600) or home technology of the time used plastic & fake wood to make them look elegant. This was very much the 1970’s version of the Xbox or Playstation if you want to enjoy video gaming as it was in the 70s, before the Atari 2600 & home computers took over.  it featured 4 different games, it has a variety of adjustment switches, such as Ball Speed, Angle & Bat Size which can alter the difficulty of the games and turn the sound off.  The paddle controllers, which consist of a simple rotary control, can be stored away in the underside battery compartment.

binatone_tv-master-4-plus-2_2The games themselves were basically all the same… the pong format with a square block – representing a ball – bouncing around the screen with a bat – which was a small solid white line – controlled by a paddle. Flicking the switch to select a different game meant that the game was changed so for example “tennis” was basically pong – with a solid white line acting as a wall top & bottom & 2 bats controlled by paddles.  “Squash” was the same game with the player 2 paddle removed & a solid wall down the right side of the screen allowing for a 1 player game or a 2 player game could be selected which added a second “bat” to the left of the screen. there was also a football game where the player controlled 2 bats simultaneously  & the side walls extended with a smaller opening. The basic gameplay remained where if the “ball” went off the screen it scored a point for your opponent. Should you get to 15 & you had to reset the game to start again with the score at 0 then try again.  The remarkable thing was there was also a lightgun available & a game called Target which was essentially clay pieon shooting where the “ball” was larger & disappeared once it registered a hit & added to the score. the same light gun was later used on some 8 bit machines albeit with a different plug attached on the end of the lead.  The target game was only featured to versions of the console known as the Plus 2 which was the system i owned.

The TV master series are first generation black & white pong consoles.  The TV Master MK IV system is the same as the Colour TV Game except that the games are in black & white, while the Colour TV game displays colour games.  The console also features a compartment underneath to store the TV cable & also the paddles could be stored inside it if the console didn’t have batteries fitted.  The machine came with a small mains adapter or could be run from if i recall 6x D sized batteries – handy if you wanted to take the console with you if you went on holiday – although if you were camping you would also need a battery operated TV – or if there wasn’t a socket spare but the battery consumption was quite high.  The paddles were quite small & basic, featuring a basic pot control to determine the position of the players “bat” on the screen & prone to failure but easily repaired using switch cleaner or replacing the pot for a better made one if you could solder the lead to it. In addition to this the supplied power supply was also prone to failure, but easily remedied as some power supplies were available (probably still are) which had a voltage selector switch & multiplug so you could power your battery run devices from the adapter if it had a socket to connect one on you battery operated device.

You may think being old you’d need an old TV or bespoke monitor to play on one today, however like most games machines of the time & during the 80’s it connected to the TV via the RF cable or ariel input & then was a case of tuning a spare channel to the console  as you would if you tuned in a new TV station. usually it was around the 35mhz mark later used by Channel 5 & what many home consoles & Video recorders were set to which was around the middle of the tuning dial.  if you have a modern TV, simply set the TV on analogue input & the switch on the console & tune in the TV but don’t worry, gaming in black & white was normal & you could always turn the TV sound off as it came from a bleeper on the console itself & played through a speaker on the console, again this could be turned off by a selector switch on the machine as the beeps got annoying after a couple of rounds of tennis.