The not so rose tinted past

June 8, 2018 - Reading time: 3 minutes

In this podcast they mention that people over 40 get nostalgic about the home computing of the 1980s but forget the bad parts.

I'm old enough to remember it. So what were the bad parts? There were plenty.

Software on cassette tapes

Cassette tapes are almost forgotten as a technology now, but were commonly used with the home computers in the first half of the 1980s. Cassettes were awful for storing programs in a similar way that they're also awful for storing music. The ferrous coating would wear off over time. Tapes would sometimes stretch. You would need to fast forward or rewind to the correct point if there were multiple programs, and that was a very hit-or-miss affair. It was easy to accidentally overwrite part of the tape that you didn't mean to. Also tapes would occasionally break.

Obtaining information useful for programming was hard

Sure you could learn the elementary parts of BASIC programming from magazines, but progressing your knowledge beyond "hello world" or other simple programs into more advanced areas was difficult. Even large libraries usually only had a few books on computers and they were always the "coffee table" type with nice photos but not of much practical use. Adults knew nothing, so it wasn't as if you could ask your parents or teachers. Chances are that you'd learn a lot more from other children who also had home computers, and in practice this is how I learned most things in the early days. Access to information in general was far more restricted since this was before the web existed.

Home computers themselves had hardware reliability issues

The quality of manufacture was not nearly as good as it is now. In the late 1980s I had an Amiga 500. These machines frequently had dodgy motherboards which would cause inexplicable crashes. The standard advice was to raise the computer and then physically hit the underside with some amount of force, bending the motherboard and hopefully jolting whatever components back into place.

Using televisions as monitors was a bad user experience

Of course if you're a kid you don't get to use the TV that your parents watch with your home computer. You have an old or second hand, typically "portable" one. Maybe out of a caravan or salvaged from a dumpster. Old TVs has all sorts of problems. In TV soap operas of that period or earlier you would sometimes see the characters hitting their TVs to make them work, and that wasn't just fiction. Not only were TVs often unreliable but the coax connection between the TV and your computer was often also rather dodgy. You might have to spend some amount of time twiddling with it to get a clear picture. And then there's tuning. Old TVs usually didn't have a remote. More typically they had a physical (analog) tuning dial and you would need to turn this to exactly the right frequency.

Software delivery took much longer than a couple of hours

In the podcast they say that in the 1980s obtaining software might take a couple of hours visiting the local computer shop. Actually it was much worse than that. Computer shops usually only stocked a few games or other software. The number of titles might be less than your number of fingers. Typically the software you wanted was not available in your local shop, so you would have to mail order it, and that typically took at least a couple of weeks.

Keyboard quality varied a lot

Many home computers had good keyboards - perhaps even better than most today - but some like the Sinclair Spectrum had keyboards which were almost unusable for typing. In the 1980s wordprocessing was a huge and smoking hot technology, so having a good keyboard really mattered.


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The blog of Bob Mottram, a Free Software hacker and maintainer of the Freedombone project.

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