Daily Archives: June 18, 2013

1983 in British Computing

1983 in British Computing

Like its American counterpart, the British PC industry was untenably fragmented by the beginning of 1983. The previous year had been deemed Information Technology Year by the government. Unlike so many government initiatives, this one had succeeded swimmingly in its goal of drumming up excitement and enthusiasm amongst the public for microcomputers. Where excitement and enthusiasm go in a market economy, of course, also go products. Thus the new computers had come thick and fast throughout 1982. In addition to the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum which I’ve already written about, there were heaps of other machines whose names sound like something spewed by a beta version of Google Translate: the Dragon 32, the Grundy NewBrain, the Jupiter Ace, the Camputers Lynx, the Oric-1. Throw in a spate of knockoffs and clones from the Far East, and the situation was truly chaos; most of these machines were incompatible with one another. Something had to give. If the lines of battle had been drawn up in 1982, the war would begin in earnest in 1983, just as it had in North America.

Even if you aren’t that familiar with British computing history, you probably aren’t exactly in suspense about who won in the British theater of the Home Computer Wars of 1983. The fact that I chose to feature the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum on this blog in preference to all those other oddball models pretty much says it all. The BBC Micro found a home in virtually every school in Britain, and, even at a street price of £400 or so, also became a favorite of researchers and hardcore hobbyists, who loved its sturdy construction and expandability. The Spectrum had none of these things going for it, but it did have a £130 price tag and a bright color graphics display for games. Neither machine was perfect, but each was a good fit for its niche. And in addition to hardware specifications both had considerable soft power working in their favor. The BBC Micro had been blessed with the imprimatur of the British government, and thus stood in effect as the official computer of the British nation. And the Speccy came from Uncle Clive, the man who had first brought low-cost computing to the British masses. Sure, he was a bit eccentric and a bit prickly, but that was just a manifestation of his impatience with the bureaucrats and business concerns that delayed his inventions reaching the masses. It was an image that Sinclair, who had begun to read his own positive press notices when said notices existed only in his head, positively reveled in. Throughout the year Sinclair struggled to keep up with demand, as seemingly every kid in Britain begged for a Speccy. Meanwhile those other computers straggled on as best they could before bowing to the inevitable one by one during this year and the next. Kids wanted what their friends had, and their friends all had Speccys.

Put crudely, then, the BBC Micro came to occupy the space in British computing held by the Apple II in North America, the Establishment choice for education and home computing. The Speccy, meanwhile, was the Commodore 64, the cheaper, ruder, funner model that the kids adored. Just to keep us from getting too neat with our analogies, it should be noted that the Commodore 64 itself also began arriving in numbers in Britain during 1983. However, the vagaries of economics and exchange rates being what they were, its initial price there was closer to that of the BBC Micro than the Spectrum, limiting its sales. The Commodore 64 became the computer for the posh public-school kids, while the Speccy remained the choice of the masses. The former was unquestionably a much more capable machine than the latter by any objective measure, but even in later years, when the price dropped and the 64’s popularity grew, it never quite got the same sort of love that accrued to the Spectrum. Like driving on the wrong side of the road and eating baked beans for breakfast, there was just something indelibly British about the Speccy’s peculiar BASIC and weird keyboard, something that made a generation of British gamers and game programmers fall in love with it as their machine.

To work this comparison one last time, Clive Sinclair’s 1983 in Britain was like Jack Tramiel’s in North America — the best, most unblemished, most triumphant year of a long, chequered career. It must have felt like vindication itself when he received an invitation to attend the Queen’s Birthday Honors in June to receive a knighthood. Suddenly Uncle Clive had become Sir Clive. Given Sinclair’s relationship with the British bureaucracy the honor might have seemed a surprising one. Indeed, at the time that he received it his company was still embroiled in various government investigations for its failure to ship its products in a timely fashion to customers as well as a rash of complaints about shoddy workmanship. (Sinclair was still desperately trying to recall some 28,000 Spectrum power packs that had the potential to shock a person into unconsciousness — shades of the exploding watches of yore.) Luckily, he was a huge favorite of Margaret Thatcher, no friend of entrenched bureaucratic forces herself, who saw him as exactly the kind of entrepreneur that her new, more freedom-loving and capitalism-friendly Britain needed. And Thatcher, who was riding a tide of personal popularity and renewed patriotism of her own in the wake of the Falklands War, generally got what she wanted. The press gushed with praise in the wake of Sinclair’s honor, some justified, some somewhat, shall we say, overblown. Popular Computing Weekly credited him with “transforming Britain from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of micro users.” Sinclair User simply announced that he had “invented the home micro,” conveniently forgetting about some folks on the other side of the Atlantic.

Clive still being Clive regardless of his honorific, he sunk his cash and his reputation into projects that were of debatable wisdom at best. In lieu of a floppy-disk drive for the Spectrum, he invested in a strange piece of technology called the Microdrive, a tape-based system that looked and operated rather like an old 8-track audio tape. Announced simultaneously with the Spectrum itself back in April of 1982, the Microdrive didn’t finally arrive until the summer of 1983. When it did it was like a caricature of a Sinclair product: cheaper than the competition but also slow and balky and horribly unreliable. A computer crash at the wrong moment could erase an entire tape in seconds. Users may have partially embraced the Speccy because of its eccentricities, but this was taking things too far. Rather than being charming the Microdrive was just sort of terrifying. It never got much love from Speccy users, who chose to stick with the even slower but more trustworthy medium of the cassette tape. In his choosing to develop such a white elephant rather than investing in the plebeian, well-proven technology of the floppy disk we see the most exasperating side of Clive Sinclair, who was always trying to prove how much more clever he was than the conventional wisdom of his competitors, even though conventional wisdom is often conventional for a reason. The Microdrive in turn shows the dangers of a company that is absolutely controlled by a single mercurial individualist. Sinclair’s backers and fans would learn much more about that in the time to come.

Then again, at least the Microdrive was a computer product. Sir Clive, who always harbored a deep skepticism about how long this computer thing was really going to last, also sunk energy and resources into his twin white whales, a miniature, portable television set and an electric car. Both projects would provoke much hilarity in the British press in later years when his star as a captain of industry had faded. But instead of going on any more about any of that today let’s just leave Sir Clive to enjoy his big year. His road will get bumpier soon enough.

Criticisms aside, Sinclair did play a huge role in turning Britain into the most computer-mad nation on Earth. Despite the American industry’s considerable head start, a greater percentage of British than American homes had computers by the end of 1983. Already by April total British microcomputer sales had passed the one-million mark. By December the Speccy alone was flirting with that figure.

All those computers in private hands meant a software marketplace that was if anything growing even faster than the hardware side. And since the computers selling in biggest numbers were the Speccys being installed in bedrooms and living rooms across Britain, software in this context meant mostly games. By 1983 a hit game could make you, at least for the time being, rich, as was demonstrated by a flood of brash young game publishers populated by brash young men just a year or two (at most) removed from bicycling to school. Now they drove Porsches and Ferraris to posh offices in the most fashionable parts of town. A company called Imagine Software, publishers of such Speccy hits as Arcadia, was amongst the most spectacular of the success stories. When a BBC film crew visited their office for a documentary feature in early 1984 they found “huge, luxurious offices, acres of carpet, computer terminals by the ton load, lots of young programmers, secretaries in abundance, young ‘gophers’ acting as runners for the management, and a company garage packed with a fleet of Ferrari Boxers, BMWs for the lesser executives, and the famous Mark Butler custom hand-built Harris motorbike.” Clearly a certain sector of British society had another very good reason to love Sir Clive: his creation was making them rich.

Just as in America, established media forces were also eager to get a piece of the action. Virgin Records launched Virgin Games, and of all people K-tel, those purveyors of cheesy TV-peddled hits compilations, also jumped in, attending the Midland Computer Fair with a well-publicized £1 million burning a hole in their pockets for deal-making with eager programmers.

Yet even with the arrival of Big Money on the scene the British industry remained wilder, woolier, and more democratic than its American counterpart. The games themselves remained much less expensive. Whereas a big release like Ultima III could exceed $50 in America, games in Britain rarely exceeded £10, and most sold for around £5 or even less. With less invested in any particular title, both publishers and buyers were more willing to take chances on crazy ideas, and individual programmers had a better chance of seeing their creations on store shelves and actually making them some money. Even if no one wanted to give them a chance they could just start their own little company in the hope of becoming the next Imagine; distribution was also comparatively wide open, making it relatively easy to get your game to the public on your own. It all added up to a market that had a lot of product that for very good reasons would never have passed muster in the United States. Yet it also had a spirit of wild-eyed, devil-may-care creativity about it that was sometimes lacking amongst the more staid, polished American publishers.

My special interest, adventure games, were a big part of the industry, amongst if not the most popular genre out there. As with other kinds of games, adventure seemed to be multiplying exponentially from month to month. Britain was not just computer mad but also adventure mad. Well before the end of the year production of new British adventure games far outstripped that of American, and the disparity would only continue to grow over the next few years. In November Micro-Adventurer debuted, the first magazine anywhere in the world dedicated not just to games in general but to this particular genre.

To survey this explosion of titles in any real depth would bog us down for months; that will have to remain a task for some other, even more esoteric blog than this one. But I will try to convey some sense of the times by continuing to follow the careers of some friends we met earlier. We’ll do that next time.

(This survey of the scene is drawn mainly from the Your Computer and Sinclair User issues of 1983, with occasional forays into Home Computing Weekly and Popular Computing Weekly. The image is taken from the 1984 Sinclair User annual’s cover.)


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