20 Goto 10: Memories of the Technological Revolution

I’m not terribly old but still, I grew up in the pre-internet era.  We used the landline to speak to our friends but mostly, we would take the opportunity when we were together, to make plans for the next time. 

If we didn’t see each other for a few days, we might write each other letters on brightly-coloured note paper and hand them over to read during lessons.  The 1980s equivalent of an SMS would have been a hastily-scribbled note passed under the desk.

1970s and 1980s: Home Computers

Occasionally, Dad would have to pop into the office on a Saturday and my brother and I would like to go with him because that meant that we could play on his calculator.  It was the size of a small shopping till and, like a till, it had a roll of paper.  I think it also had a handle but that may have been the pencil sharpener. 

Then, in 1977 or 1978, Casio brought out a brand new electronic calculator.  Dad went to buy it as soon as it arrived in the shops and it cost him a princely £14.  Mum tutted but she soon saw the benefits – it kept my brother and I occupied for weeks; especially when our friends showed us how to write rude upside-down words like “55378008.”

zx81Christmas brought our first TV Game.  Children and adults alike sat spellbound as rectangular bats sent square balls flying across the screen.  You could play tennis or squash, in one or two player mode.  Then, in 1981, after much pleading from my brother, we took delivery of our first computer, a ZX81.  It had 1K of memory and a membrane keypad which made it difficult to type but it was tiny, compared to the monstrous computers of the comparatively recent 1960s.

SpectrumWe soon tired of writing endless Goto routines though and 1982 brought the Sinclair Spectrum (after similar amounts of pleading).  The Spectrum had superior rubber keys, 15 colours and a whopping 16K of memory.  Would-be developers cut their programming teeth on the spectrum, writing their own games and learning how to convert binary to hexadecimal so they could create hand-made 8×8 pixel icons.

Games could be bought or recorded onto a standard audio tape.  Of course, if the tape got chewed or recorded over, all the data was lost.  I’ll let my brother tell you the story of how I destroyed a whole summer’s work – needless to say, it was all my fault and he still hasn’t got over it.

1988: First Email Address

My first email “address” was EE_C132 and it was given to me when I enrolled at Kingston Poly to study electronics.  It was actually a username to give me access to the VAX/VMS computer system and a rudimentary messaging system enabled us to communicate internally, but still not with the outside world.  I customised my user ID with a little face:


A couple of years into my degree, Dad sent me a frantic telegram because he’d tried to phone me in my student house to tell me about a job offer and I wasn’t there.  Without an answer machine, a telegram was the only other way to get hold of me.  I, of course, was terrified to open it, thinking that somebody must have died.

1990: First Mobile

GTI and brickWhen I took a summer job at a local computer parts firm, I was thrilled to be put on delivery and collection duty.  This meant I would be given the keys to the firm’s Peugeot 205 GTI and the holy grail of early 90s communications, the company mobile.  Kids who weren’t even born then will laughingly refer to anything larger than a matchbox as a “brick”.  This really was the size of a house brick and I thought I had the coolest student job in the world, which I did, of course.

1991: Multimedia

My industrial placement found me working for ICL in a department which, for logistical reasons, did not have access to the internet.  Not for the last time in my career, I found myself involved in the production of customer documentation.  Again, I was given access to a mainframe system with a green screen dumb terminal on my desk.  I used this to produce the text and I used codes to make the text bold, italic or to change the justification.  The principle is not dissimilar to basic HTML. 

For the diagrams, I needed to compete with 120 people to book time on the department’s shared Apple Mac.  You booked a slot by writing your name in a text book that sat next to the Mac.  If it was booked solid, which happened quite often, I would go to the planning team and plead to borrow one of theirs.  If I was lucky I would get 30 minutes whilst one of them ate their lunch, watching me intently.  A basic drawing package allowed me to draw boxes, circles and lines only. 

Once the drawing was complete, I would print it out and then cut the page down to size, taking care to use curvy edges, as straight lines would show on the final copy.  Then, I would stick it with glue onto the page, hoping I had left enough space in the text file.  The document would then be ready for photocopying and, if I had done a good enough job, it was impossible to tell that the diagram had, literally, been cut and pasted!

1992: First PC

Back at Kingston, final year projects loomed.  The university had four or five PCs dotted around that you could buy time on using your pre-paid library card.  The idea of competing with all the other final year students was pretty daunting, so I clubbed together with a friend to buy a PC.  It was an Amstrad 286 which cost nearly £1,000, including printer, and I still have it in the loft.  Unfortunately, I no longer have a monitor that will enable me to see what I have on the hard drive but I hope that one day, technology will allow me to take a peek.

The day before I was due to hand my project in, I received a lesson in the importance of regular back-ups – my project became corrupted while I was printing it and the drafts that I had saved to floppy disk were pretty out of date.  Fortunately, I had a recent printed copy and I was able to type it back in.  It took the best part of a long, anxious night to do it though.

1993: The Beginnings of a Web

In 1993, I joined BNR (Bell Northern Research, Nortel’s research division) and received my first ‘proper’ email address – cosborn@bnr.ca.  Disappointingly, I’ve just Googled it and come up with nothing, although I used it for years.  I also received a ‘proper’ computer – an Apple Mac all of my own, with a whopping 16Mb hard drive.  It was later upgraded to 40Mb, to my delight.

A little later, my senior manager, a real technophile, sent us an email to explain a forthcoming office move.  We were to go to the department server and install a package on our computers.  Then, we had to open it up and type in a series of numbers and words into the input box at the top of the screen.  When I did this, my mouth formed an ‘O’ – there was a beautiful yellow page with photos of the new office and bits of blue underlined text you could click to go to a new page.  Bullet points were made out of red and green balls.  It looked fabulous.  Of course, the package was Netscape, the numbers and words were a URL formed from an IP address.

Before long, I had built my own page which included, bizarrely, a picture of an aeroplane (media resources were still quite scarce) and a spreadsheet containing a list of all known ETSI standards that I had put together from scratch because access to this kind of information on the ETSI website was still quite a way off.  As the departments linked up to form an intranet, I would experience for the first time, the pain of being plagiarised: my ETSI spreadsheet started popping up all over the place.

Social Networking: The Latest Revolution


In the mid-90s, it was difficult to envisage that there were any advances left to make.  Since then though, we have seen huge strides in computer memory, bandwidth and applications (particularly graphics) and the last few years have seen another revolution in the way we communicate with each other with the rise of social networking. 

When I first joined Facebook, I wondered whether my cousins’ children would even know who I was.  Fortunately, they did and weren’t too embarrassed to add me as a friend.  It’s a far cry from the days when first cousins once removed were people you met at weddings, funerals and the occasional Christmas buffet.  Now, I not only receive regular fascinating insights into their lives, but also a daily reminder that actually, I am getting on a bit.


5 responses to “20 Goto 10: Memories of the Technological Revolution

  1. So many memories of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s computer revolutions. I was lucky to live relatively close to a Uni that had a DEC10 and DEC20. My first foray into technology was in 1978 when i got to use the DEC10. Who would guess that 12 years later I would be working on VMS clusters with 3 DEC’s under my desk and a Mac LC on top. So much has been ‘improved’ since those early days but in many respects so many things have degraded. I come from the era where we had to learn to code efficiently to fit our program into that 1k of ZX81 memory. That takes some doing and gives a different mind set to those the youth of today have where 2,3 or even 8GB or RAM is not uncommon. 8GB! thats 16 million times more memory than my first ZX-80. Imagine what I could have done with that back then!

  2. Your point about efficiency is so true and probably the reason I was not a good programmer – I think I held the record in my year group for Fahrenheit–>Centigrade converter with the most lines of code.

    Fortunately, verbosity isn’t always an issue in my current career 🙂

  3. I (unlike my sibling) am a man of few words, so here is something I prepared earlier.



    p.s. hope the above link works!

  4. I first became aware of computers in the 1950s from a very enthusiastic maths teacher who predicted the invention of the PC, the internet and everything that sprang from them. In 1958 I was interviewed at the newly opened Pfizer site in Kent and politely declined a job that seemed to involve pushing pencils through holes in cards. It was of course an explanation of how computers work and I could have been in on the ground floor. In those days computers were big and clumsy. At Cambridge in the 1950s the caretaker’s first job in the morning was to switch the EDSAC on so that the valves could warm up. In the early 60s we had our first mainframes at work, ICTs and later ICLs. All our data input was on handwritten coding sheets. These were then typed as square holes on cards by two sets of typists, so that a rectangular hole would be accepted by the computer and two square ones rejected. They were also numbered so as to be in the correct order. All this took 3 or 4 days turn-around time and then the print-out would sometimes come back with an error message, usually resulting from the computer operators dropping the cards and putting them back in the wrong order. Happy days – wouldn’t have missed them for anything!

  5. You’ll probably enjoy this bit of nostalgia http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00n5b92/Micro_Men/.

    Of course the C64 was ultimately superior to all your Sinclairs, BBCs., Dragons, Orics and what have you.

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