A Life in Computers

A trip to The National Museum of Computing at the weekend was a real trip down memory lane for me. You can read about our visit to Bletchley Park at a later date but I wanted to highlight some of the more significant computers that have featured in my life that were on show there. The dates are pretty loose as my memory is not what it once was!

Teletype (c. 1976)


A Data Dynamics Teletype

I have written previously about how I encountered my first “computer” at secondary school. In fact this wasn’t a computer at all but basically a printer with a phone line (modem) attached that allowed it to “talk” to the computer which was in Harwell up the road.

This used to fascinate me being able to type a command and get an answer back. That really was hi-tech back then and I was fortunate to attend a school that had such a thing as it was pretty unremarkable in almost every other way.

Research Machines 380Z (c. 1978)

Research Machines 380Z

Research Machines 380Z

A couple of years later the school got a computer of its own – a Research Machines 380Z. This was an industrial looking piece of kit designed to withstand the types of knocks that it would get in a typical school environment. It was on this machine that I did my O Level computer science project, which was a system to create chemistry tests.

Sinclair ZX80 (c. 1980)


Sinclair ZX80

Around 1980 computers were just beginning to make their way into the home from the office and classroom. I remember seeing my first ZX80 when a neighbour built his from a kit and I went round to have a play. This was then replaced by the ZX81 which was the first computer that I actually owned complete with wobbly 16k RAM pack.

I traded up to my first colour computer shortly afterwards, the Sinclair Spectrum. Here my burgeoning knowledge of computers was put to good use as I got a holiday job in Selfridges, Oxford where I was employed to sell Spectrums and advise potential purchasers on how they might use them. For this knowledge I got a wage and a 1% commission on everything I sold. I made a lot of money that summer as the Spectrum just sold itself – everyone wanted one.

DEC PDP/11 (c. 1985)



By now I was at University doing a degree in Computer Science and was exposed to a number of different machines including Research Machines Nimbus’ but the one that I remember most fondly is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP/11 on which we learnt to code in Macro-11.

As you can see this was a big machine with computing power to match, although the noddy bits of code we wrote for it were never going to trouble it that much.

My final year project was written in LISP and used the RM Nimbus. The idea was to replicate the local building regulations in that you would import a plan of a structure and it would tell you if it met the regs.

ICL 2900 (c. 1988)


ICL 2900 Series

My first job was working for a software house called CAP based in Reading. I worked as a developer writing and maintaing a sales order processing system called ORMA in what was called a 4th generation language Application Master running on an ICL 2900 series mainframe. This took up the ground floor of the building we worked in as it really was as big as this picture implies.

I had actually used its forerunner, the ICL 1900 series, when I did a weeks industrial placement at Amey Roadstone when I was at school and so already knew a little bit about VME the operating system. I used to love putting in the mag tapes to load up some code I had written!

Psion Organiser II (c. 1992)


Psion Organiser II

By the nineties I was now working for Yellow Pages as, initially, a COBOL developer who morphed into a PowerBuilder developer at a later date. It wasn’t just programming languages that were changing but the very nature of computing was too. The PC was in and everyone was getting one on the desktop – well under the desk as they were still pretty big. However, miniaturisation meant that “pocket” organisers were now possible and I was early in when I bought a second hand Psion Organiser II from a colleague.

I loved my Organiser with it’s tiny screen and sliding plastic protective cover. I also loved how it started to free me from the tyranny of paper diary and address book – now I could have these with me all the time. It also was the size of a brick and useful in hand-to-hand combat!

A visit to the The National Museum of Computing was a great way to relive some of my past computers and I throughly recommend the museum.