Computer nostalgia

It’s Wednesday and as anticipation builds for this evening’s episode of The Apprentice, I’m reminded of the conversations set off by my blog about Edward Hunter. The demise of the accountant candidate seemed to attract less attention than the merits of Amstrad’s PCW computer (and the even more dubious claims of 1970s Amstrad stereo systems).

I’ve seen this before on AccountingWEB. A significant proportion of the membership comes from that generation that cut its teeth on BBC Micros and Sinclair ZX 80 computers and crossed seamlessly over to PC-based accounting systems when they entered the profession.

I grew up with computers (see below). My mother was a computer journalist who claims to have cited one as co-respondent in her 1968 divorce. She took me with her around trade fairs in the 1960s and 1970s, where I played lunar landing and ballistic plotting games powered by IBM System 36s and other minicomputers. I followed her into the business and one of my first articles as a journalist was about the demise of Dragon Computers in 1984. I still seem to be writing about them nearly 30 years later.

Some people like to sit around and identify old car models that appear on TV. I seem to do a similar thing, but with computers. It’s surprising how evocative they can be and how useful they are as historical benchmarks. I can’t tell you what year Bananarama had three consecutive UK Top 10 hits, but the twin 5.25in floppy IBM PC-AT with 128kb of RAM that Mum bought for £3,000 takes me right back to 1983. Eight years later, I blew my own nest egg on an Apple Macintosh IIsi, which packed a 20MHz Motorola 68030 processor, 40Mb hard drive and 2Mb of RAM - and a really, really nice Apple Trinitron screen. I can recall the work that I was doing and my physical surroundings at the time just by thinking of the machine.

Am I right and do other members share this slightly odd preoccupation with computer hardware? What are the machines that evoke the strongest memories for you? Feel free to post specs, pictures and software reminiscences to fill out our social history of office computing…

carnmores's picture

looks like a ventriloquist act

carnmores | | Permalink

did you get your tache from photoshop?

scalloway's picture

Shelton Signet

scalloway | | Permalink

The first PC I ever worked on was the Shelton Signet. It ran Supercalc 2, Wordstar and dBAse, using CP/M. It was networked but it was very easy for each users files to corrupt each other by leaking data across.

Nigel Hughes's picture

Oh blimey, Don't get me started.....too late

Nigel Hughes | | Permalink

So there were the Tandy 64ks with which the Deloitte (Haskins & Sells in those days) training department  was going to teach the world to compute!

My Sinclair ZX81 on which I was writing a tax computation programme until the 16k add on memory module on the back dropped off, wiped everything after who knows how many days work, and was consigned to a dark cupboard, never to be used again.

The Sirius twin 5 1/2 in floppy machine on which I demonstrated, using multiplan that it was possible to do partnership accounts and automatically change profit shares and keep the balance sheet balancing as the profits changed.

The discovery of Lotus 123 on an IBM PC - really the start of computing as a game everyone could play.

The Amstrad CP/M word processor which ordinary peolple could afford, enabled them to keep copies of the letters they wrote and meant that you could run Supercalc at home.

The Cambridge (nee Sinclair) A4 sized thing on which I wrote the first ever business plan for what is still my business. Tiny screen but a really portable computer.

The wonders of Dell windows based machines over the years including the step change of the Pentium and CD ROMS

The Compaq laptops until it became clear that a decent performance Dell laptop meant I didn't need a desktop any more.

The netbook which meant after 10 years I once again had more than 1 computer

The iPad which has got me seriously tempted to ditch windows based machines

Where will it all end?

stepurhan's picture

No love for Commodores?

stepurhan | | Permalink

I have both a Commodore 64 and a Commodore Amiga in the attic. For the C64  I had a GEOS, the Graphic Environment Operating System. It was Windows before Windows and the cursor was operated by mouse. It had a package of programmes that came with it, including a picture editor and a word processor. There was a lot of disc swapping involved though. Insert disc to load up GEOS. Swap disc to load up word processor. Swop disc to load up saved document. Swap disc to return to GEOS when you were done.

My first PC was a bit like that as well. It was a dumb terminal I'd inherited from my first accouting job, which didn't have a hard drive! As you can imagine, operations were a bit limited initially.

stepurhan's picture

Alas poor Oric

stepurhan | | Permalink

I am reminded by my wife that we also have her Oric in the attic. This has a massive 48kb of RAM. Yes, I do mean kb, not MB or GB. Yes, it actually does have the word  "massive" on the box.

Apple II

stanbu | | Permalink

Ahh, the Apple II....

State of the art, twin 128k floppy disk drives - 48k memory - Visicalc, the first spreadsheet from which all others were born.

I wrote a payroll program thirty years ago which ran in the 48k. transferred the program to run on a new Amstrad PC1640, kept transferring and adapting it for later model PCs over the next 20 odd years........ until I discovered Moneysoft!

ChrisBurr's picture

Possibly the oldest/earliest machine to have a mouse?

ChrisBurr | | Permalink

Whilst training with KPMG I did an audit for a very small long standing insurance broker based in a dusty old office just off Covent Garden.  They had the oldest computer that I have ever seen used to run their business on.  The size of a desk with a long carriage on it.  Don't know the make, probably an early IBM?  It was programmed with hole punched tape and cards using a pencil and accounting records were also typed out on card.  One day the thing ground to a complete hault.  They opened it up to see if they could fix it and found that a mouse ( the furry kind) had made a nest inside it and probably been there for months. At KPMG we had started using the big new all in one apple MACs complete with mouse so the irony of the event was not lost on us and we attempted to rehome it into a small box and named it "Mac".   I understand the machine was used well into the mid 90's!

As teeenager I wrote programmes for my father to run finance and leasing company on a BBC Micro complete with Z80 second processor. Had a 6502 second processor too for other uses.  ( No minmum wage I did it for the love of it) What a machine . It was attached to a JUKI daisy wheel printer that would hammer out invoices, accounts, TB's and statements in a dizzy making whirl of noise, clattering away like a machine and gun eating expensive ink tapes.  (Oh ..... how sad was I?  I should have been underage drinking, playing Atari and chasing girls instead).

Wish I'd done the sensible thing and put the BBC machine in the loft with the orginal Atari games console!

Possibly the oldest...

duncanphilpstate | | Permalink

I think what ChrisBurr described was probably made by NCR as I always called them NCR machines.

He's obviously also from the generation of accountants privileged to have known both these machines and proper electronic computers. I was always proud to know that most computer scientists would not have known or conceived of the existence of this sort of device.

If I recall correctly, the reason for the long carriage was that the "program" was made up from bits of metal sticking out of a bar on the carriage. These told the machine where to print things like totals and running balances. Changing the program (eg from accounts payable to payroll) meant changing the bar.

All the printing was done onto large ledger cards. Memory between input sessions consisted of the printed balance on the latest card for each account - which was entered by the operator on the keyboard when starting to work on that account in the next cycle. I presume that inside the early models were gear wheels and mechanical things that held this number and added future input onto it. Later on they probably had some electronics doing the same thing but still relying on input from print for the balance brought forward. Towards the end of their history the really up-to-date machines had a magnetic stripe down the side of the ledger cards which held the balance and meant no more need to key it in.

Of course such a dinosaur was out competed as soon as digital computers and storage evolved beyond a reasonable affordability and size, and the NCR machines died out except for evidently a very few places with no greater needs.

Duncan (first computer - Atari 520)

carnmores's picture

ah memories

carnmores | | Permalink

had a commodore in 1981 and used to run the sales ledger and purchase ledger on the 2 floppies

Jon Stow's picture

From ZX81 up too.

Jon Stow | | Permalink

I had a ZX81 with the 16K Velcro-attached add-on. Not, it didn't always stay attached and could be very frustrating. I learned Sinclair basic programming, and someone gave me a program on cassette tape which told me the position of the moon any time in the twentieth century. I would give it a time window and it took three hours to calculate, but it did work.

I then had a BBC machine but didn't get on with it, and my sister had a C64 which I didn't like either. In about 1986 my sister gave me an IBM-AT 286 which was being discarded from her work, which I loved. I trained myself in DOS syntax and wrote stuff in Microsoft basic. When Windows came out it seemed much less fun. Mind you Windows didn't work very well until 3.1.


jpcc1 | | Permalink

I started work in the management accounts department of part of GEC. A large room with serried rows of desks. Not a computer in sight ( we used to fight for the electric adding machine, rather than the one with the pull down handle on the side!).

Information from the shop floor would be punched on to cards, as described by duncanphilipstate above. These would be fed into the one computer ( as big as my then house and probably with less power than my current phone) and once a week we would be sent down the road to collect big cardboard boxes of print outs forming the basis of our work for the next week. (As a CIMA day release student I spent my first three months filing standard cost sheets - who says an accountant's life is not glamorous!)

I remember IBM launching a big advertising campaign for their first PCs - OPD or One Per Desk. I said, it'll never catch on !

can't get it right all the time.


Not enough memory

cjdytham | | Permalink

I remember a Compaq PC compatible with accounts spreadsheets in Supercalc.

When it came to consolidating the accounts for the 9 regions at end of year, it transpired that Supercalc needed more memory.

I seem to remember that Supercalc could make use of both Expanded or Extended memory modules - remember those ?

The Compaq, however, demanded Compaq proprietary memory boards at something like £3k total to get it all working!

jonsa's picture

First was a Pet

jonsa | | Permalink

My first work pc was a commodore pet 32K with built in keyboard and a green characters on the screen plus twin disc drives and a daisy printer.  That was 1981.  A year later I bought an upgrade of 64K (I think it cost £300).  Visicalc was a great tool, but if you transferred it to another machine, you had to open the pc and move the chip too.

cverrier's picture

Don't get me started.... Oh too late.

cverrier | | Permalink

BBC Micro in 1982 - bought for me by my parents.  I upgraded it from Model A to Model B status over a period of about 18 months - learning an awful lot about fine soldering along the way!   I learned to program on that, and although I've not programmed seriously in 20 years - the basic disciplines I learned then still apply.

I bought a floppy drive for it - 5.25" double sided - 200Kb per disk.   It was enormous, weighed a heck of a lot, and cost £200.

As a member of a  local computer club (they were everywhere) I met a guy who supervised the electrical fit-out for Heathrow Terminal 4 - he used his BBC Micro to keep track of all the building plans he was dealing with on the project.

When I started grammar school - they had a teletype machine connected via phone line (and a wooden acoustic coupler) to the local FE college's mainframe.  When I left, the school had a new dedicated IT block with a network of Research Machine computers. (RM cornered the market in education machines for nearly a decade - mainly by building computers out of black sheet-steel that were utterly child-proof)

There were three of four big computer exhibitions a year in London alone - the sheer variety of computer designs, the vast array of add-ons and customisations, the energy at that time was almost unique in the world.   Apple, Apricot, Superbrain, Nascom, Tandy, Commodore, Atari, Oric, Enterprise, Sharp, Grundy, Sord, Sinclair, Acorn, Texas Instruments, Dragon Data, Jupiter Ace.. the list was endless, and each make was incompatible with every other!

My first job put me in front of Apricot, Sirius, IBM and Olivetti PC's - I still love the Apricot design.   I walked into my first accountancy practice in 1986 to implement a little network of Olivetti M24 PC's with Wordstar for four slightly bemused secretaries who rather missed their big old black IBM golfball typewriters.  (The practice, for the record, was Gordon Leighton in Queen Anne Street!).

Hands up everyone whose professional life revolved around an Apricot Xi with Finax!



weaversmiths's picture


weaversmiths | | Permalink

In one of my previous lives "in the real world" before entering the CS I was Service Manager of a Linen Hire firm based in Croydon.  There was a computer "room" there, the computer taking up most of the space with about 4 people inputting information and spools of paper running all over the place.  It frequently crashed and lost all the information. The owners thought they were the beesknees running their organisation by computer but then it was the early 70s. and it really was just their accounting system.


ball_john6's picture

First Computer

ball_john6 | | Permalink

A Superbrain (what a name) which had a CRT screen, two 5.5 inch floppy drives and a built in keyboard running supercalc under CP/M (I think). What a blessing when they produced an update to supercalc that allowed you to carry totals from the end of one 32K spreadsheet to the start of another - but I really wasn't sure I liked the mouse when it came along!!!!! 

ChrisBurr's picture

Oh dear

ChrisBurr | | Permalink

Oh dear John, you really dont like the mouse do you?..... I think you clicked twice again ;)

ball_john6's picture


ball_john6 | | Permalink

 And I thought I had got used to it now.....................

Old Greying Accountant's picture

I prefer a mouse ...

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... to these touchy screen things, they set my teeth on edge - like fingernails down the blackboard!

At least they are doing laptops with decent keyboards now - seeing as a large percentage of users are accountants it was  ridiculous they didn't have a decent number key pad. My old "portable" computers, by the time I had a plug in number pad and mouse ended up with a massive and heavy bag to lug around!


Oh the excitement of those days...

alistair_king | | Permalink

I remember the excitement of my first few computers very well!!

First was a ZX81 complete with a 16K RAM pack. This was a Christmas present back in 1982 when I was just 14. Me and my father drove a couple of hundred kilometers from Klerksdorp to Johannesburg to buy it. I first learned to program in Sinclair BASIC. And got as far as playing with some machine code. I remember one of the magazines of the time published a machine code tutorial with a chess program that worked in 1K of RAM (the only drawback was it couldn't figure out that it had reached checkmate).

Next up (Christmas two years later) I received a VIC 20 with its own dedicated tape recorder. By now computers had reached our own town so we went to the local Indian bazaar and haggled and haggled for a good price. Over time I acquired a few accessories - my first joystick, more memory, FORTH (I used to love that language), plenty of games cartridges.

Around the same time my father acquired a Sharp PC1512 which I also learned to program. This was a little pocket computer - 1K RAM, BASIC.

A friend gave me an old TRS 80 - with twin 8" floppies. I can't remember the storage capacity but I do remember frequently wiping a disk inserting it or removing it from the drives. There was a REASON they were called floppy!!!

At aged 18 I returned to the UK (in a hurry - due to the SADF wanting to measure me for a brown suit for national service - and my hating apartheid) where I bought an Oric Atmos.

Meanwhile I started work - straight into a rural accountancy practice. I couldn't afford uni since despite being born in London I was counted as a foreign student (lived outside the EU for the previous three years). My first computer in the workplace was an old Apple IIe. My boss wanted me to write a database for the practice but when I calculated the fields we would need it was waaaaaay more than I could fit on disk. So that fell by the wayside.

Next practice (a friend found me a better job in a nearby town) had a couple of nice CPM computers - 8086 based - one twin floppy and the second with a hard drive - with wordstar and an early implementation of IRIS. After I'd been there a year they upgraded to a couple of 286 machines (and the PC version of IRIS). I ended up looking after them - looking after IRIS - setting up back-up routines etc.

At home, I drooled over the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga but never bought one. Instead someone gave me an Amtrad 1640 with twin 5" floppies and GEM - a graphic interface. That got replaced with a 286 then finally I got a 486SX with VGA graphics. After migrating to Pentiums I played around with Linux too.

After about 4 years at that practice I took my first role in commerce. They were heavy Lotus 123 users and I remember explaining at my interview that I'd never used a spreadsheet so they might need to give me training. After I had been there a week the Controller took me to one side and tore a strip off me for lying about my spreadsheet skills in the interview since I was obviously an expert user. I protested my innocence but she just would not believe that anybody could learn 123 so quickly without training.

I could have gone down the geek route and specialized in complex spreadsheets and macros (and from the above you must guess I teetered on the edge of it). Instead I applied those same systemic skills and disciplines to the real world and now have one of the most interesting jobs I ever heard of - tailor made for me - leading finance and decision making process and control improvements across a global manufacturing group.

I don't even know what chip I have in my computer anymore. Come to that, I'm not sure how much RAM I have or how big my hard drive is. Who cares. It runs a pretty standard windows installation with office etc. But writing this I hear my inner nerd calling and I'm now thinking about making it dual boot with linux...

What memories

HudsonCo | | Permalink

I went from ZX81 and BBC to Atari 520 thanks to a boyfriend doing a Computer Science degree.

The software brings back more memories for me. Supercalc, visicalc and programming in Sinclair and BBC basic. I got my first two jobs because I knew how to use a computer and now I even need one to run my home life let alone the business.

RebeccaBenneyworth's picture

Older still

RebeccaBenneyworth | | Permalink

My first experience of computer programming was at university where I did programming modules as part of my maths degree. 1976 - and the computer took up an entire floor of the Maths block at Southampton. We had to submit "runs" on huge decks of punched cards - sometimes only to drop the deck on the way in and have to sort out a few hundred commands (1 per card) into order! We used Basic, and in the second year Pascal. Some of the postgrads were inventing a new language called "C" - which eventually became C++ I think.

In industry in about 1982 (company car - Ford Capri) we still had "comp" operators (comptomoter) - essentially an adding machine but quite a clever one. We also had a large mainframe and computer room with many staff including an "input clerk".

My first own PC was acquired after I set up in practice - Amstrad 1512 with twin floppy drives. I'm pretty sure I didn't have a hard drive, so used one drive for software and one for data. Wordperfect 3 to start with (Later 5.1) and Lotus 123. Very reluctantly changed over to Word somewhere about early 1990's I think. Could write a few Dos programs when needed but hubby programmed for the Pru on a mainframe around that time so my skills waned.

The most fascinating was a Poquet - about the size of an i-pad when open, but it folded closed along its length. It ran on 4 x AA batteries and had about a 2/3 size keyboard. Around 2cm thick when closed. Bought it in 1990 and it was amazing - a real forerunner for the modern timy machines. Designed by a couple of chaps who left HP in the late 80's. It ran WPerfect on a sort of solid state card a bit bigger than a credit card. Still got it somewhere - if I can find it I'll bung a photo up.

No need for photo - there's a Wikipedia article with pics. Neat eh? (Cost an absolute bomb - £1,700 I think - and that was a lot of money in those days)

carnmores's picture

older still

carnmores | | Permalink

but i cant remember what machine we usd in 1971, i do remember writing fortran and cobol code on punched tape, mind you it usually had same outcome as my input today


Mr_Flibble2 | | Permalink

First computer was a 48K Spectrum in 1983 (aged 7) that my father got to do work on at home ostensibly, but that was of far more interest to me!  I learned to do a little BASIC programming on that - and recall the frustration of 2 year old sister tripping over the power cable and ending hours (or what seemed like it) of trying to make an asterisk fly down a valley of slashes and other assorted symbols.

Then moved on to an Amstrad 1640 aged 11  (I wanted an Amiga....but very glad I never got one) which I learned to take apart and put back together again, and added a hard disk to - imagining I would never use more than 32Mb of storage in my lifetime.   I can remember this came with GEM (a Windows type program from Digital Research) which I pretty much only used for it's paint program as I found DOS much more useful.

At 15 I bought my first computer for myself from saved up paper round money (it took 2 years!) of a 486 DX50 with 8Mb RAM which positively flew (or so it seemed), improved over time with various upgrades to sound/graphics.

That lasted me up to starting university where I built my first computer by cobbling a 486 DX4 120 together for myself out of bits bought second hand from various sources.

I avoided using Windows for as long as possible as I was perfectly happy with DOS - eventually being forced over to Windows 95 when I started work and needed to do the odd bit at home on my own machine using Word/Excel.

Thereafter I've built various incarnations of Pentiums, AMD Durons, Athlons, Athlon x2s and latterly Phenoms for myself and others in my spare time - currently have 4 working PCs in the house (although one is my wife's) - and these days work in tax software having started out as a tax adviser but finding I wasn't spending enough time in front of a computer!






afairpo's picture

Ah, history

afairpo | | Permalink

First computer used: old IBM (maybe 6100?) donated to school, so unlikely to have been cutting edge even in the late 70s - I seem to recall writing Dungeons & Dragons type programs for it ...

First computer owned: ZX80, bought as a kit so homebuilt, with a whole 1Kb of memory! I still have a solder scar from those days.

After that, it's been a succession of the things, from a BBC Micro, an Apple ][e through to a Mac in late 1984, more homebrewed PCs in the dark ages of Apple, and I'm now writing this on an iMac.

Fondest memories of:

  • the Apple ][e, because of the general fun and games of machine language programming and DIY expansion cards (graphics, extra drive cards etc) and running a computer with its lid off!
  • the 1984 Mac, because I wrote my first book on it (about assembly language programming).  It was my advance from the publisher, which was a deeply cheeky request on my part which I didn't even begin to expect them to agree to. 
  • the BBC Micro, because I knew more about it than the school teachers and so effectively ran the school computing department.  Knowing more than the teachers was highly amusing to my teenage self.

Still not sure how I got sidetracked into law, let alone tax, I was supposed to be a programmer.  It was always a bit of a toss-up as to whether I specialised in tax or IP, so I combined both.

pawncob's picture

Don't get me started, I've still got an Aquarius!

pawncob | | Permalink

Shouldn't this be tied in with this:

Reality is never far away.

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