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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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A little PC time-travel

18 November 2019

Hands up anyone who remembers the Epson MX80?

Yes, this was the iconic dot-matrix printer of the early 1980s and absolutely everyone who was involved in computers, either at an industry or hobby level must surely have had or used one of these devices.

My first printer was a CItoh dot matrix job that did a reasonable job of making inky marks on fan-fold paper but had one huge drawback -- its use of a solenoid and rachet-pawl mechanism for feeding paper. If you dared to issue a form-feed command, the printer would honestly sound like a machine gun as the solenoid and mechanics rattled into action to advance the paper by up to 66 lines in just a few short seconds.

By comparison, the MX80 was a silent dream of a printer.

Whilst its quality was "acceptable" but nothing to write home about, the fact that the Epson printer was so quiet and could also take standard A4 sheets of paper (instead of just fan-fold perferated computer paper) made it a much better solution for most printing tasks.

So what has prompted this little nostalgia trip?

Well over the weekend, YouTube decided I should be watching old editions of the BBC's computer program from the early 1980s.

Anyone who was active in computing back then will recall that there was even a "BBC Micro" computer that was specifically designed and built at the time and used heavily in the TV series to showcase what computers could do and how to use them.

The BBC Micro was actually not a bad little computer for its day. From memory, it had a 6502 processor and a rather good BASIC interpreter that even supported named functions.

I recall thinking that I'd rather like to have gotten my hands on one of these machines but they were (like all micros of the day) horrendously expensive.

Other interesting elements of the BBC's TV series were the reminder of how we used to use regular audio cassette tapes and players to store and load our simple BASIC programs.

Hands up everyone who would sit there for minutes at a time hoping never to see the words "CHECKSUM ERROR" just seconds from the end of a long loading session from such tapes?

The clunky upper-case-only text of just 40 columns and 25 rows was another reminder of how far we've come from those early, but incredibly exciting days of personal computing.

Listening to the presenters talking about the fantastic speed of the fastest computers of the day, some processing up to 50,000 instructions per second, put a big smile on my face. Watching someone extole the virtues and magnificent power of a Cray supercomputer used by the UK weather service was also amusing -- especially considering that these days, less than four decades later, your smartphone probably has significantly more power than this once-almighty machine.

Another interesting example was an old valve computer that was still in use right up to the date the program was made. Of course it had just been replaced by a micro that did the job much faster and more effectively.

As someone who was right there on the coalface back in the 1970s and 1980s when microcomputers were in their infancy, this stuff brings back some happy memories and I think it's well worth anyone spending a little time to either relive those days or (if you're too young) gather an appreciation for just how primative those early computers really were.

Here are some links to get you started...

BBC Computer Programme (ep 1)

Making the most of the micro

Database (Thames TV) playlist

Also note how far broadcast TV technology has come from those early days of standard-definition material and tape-based recorders!

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