/ Technology

A brief history of tech: what got you into computing?

Many people’s first introduction to personal computing was with the BBC Micro in the early 1980s. But what was the first computer you ever used?

When did you first start using computers? For BBC science presenter and physicist Helen Czerski, it was at school when she got her hands on the BBC Micro.

In the October issue of Which? Computing, Helen tells Which? reporter Andrew Laughlin that she was ahead of the curve with the BBC Micro when she got to secondary school, so much so that “I was actually teaching the teachers how to use the computers.”

The BBC Micro was the introduction to computing for many people, so it was a no-brainer for me to send Andrew Laughlin along to talk to the BBC about why it’s opened up the online archive of its 1980s Computer Literacy Project.

You can read more about how the BBC got Britain in to computing in Which? Computing, where we’ve picked out some of our favourite clips (including one of a very youthful Bill Gates), as well as learn more about Helen’s early forays into computing, and you can explore the archive for yourself.

Childhood computing

My dad worked for IBM from the 1960s until the 1980s, with his job taking us all around the world, so computers were in many ways part of my life from my earliest childhood.

Some of my favourite childhood memories include my mother using old punchcards for crafting projects: she used to make our Christmas wreath out of them.

However, I didn’t get my hands on an actual computer until I was in the sixth form, in the early 1980s: my Yorkshire boarding school had a “Computing Room” in an attic room at the top of a long flight of stairs where a couple of BBC Micros sat.

I remember fiddling about with them – although they seem a long way from my eventual own first PC, which in fact was a cast-off of my dad’s, who was upgrading.

Windows of opportunity

I inherited his old 386-based PC running Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, and it was on that that I first learned my way around the nascent web via a Compuserve account, a dial-up modem and the Netscape Navigator browser.

I remember being very proud of myself when I upgraded it with some more RAM and a faster modem – and I haven’t looked back since.

A few years ago I visited the Microsoft campus in Redmond, where they had a museum: that was like a walk through my childhood and my teens, with old IBM PCs running not only ancient versions of Windows but also various flavours of OS/2, which I remember my father having on his desk at home back in the 80s.

What’s new?

Elsewhere in the October issue of Which? Computing, we’ve got expert tips from Becky Horsbrugh, who’s a professional video journalist and editor, to help you get the most out of making and editing videos on your smartphones and laptops.

I’ve found that really helpful – certainly my videos have improved since I read her copy.

If you need a new mobile phone but can’t quite bring yourself to shell out for the latest and greatest smartphone, Tom Morgan has pulled together a very useful guide on how to buy a secondhand smartphone, and we’ve also rounded up the latest broadband deals.

What were your first forays into computing? What weird and wonderful hardware and software first took you online, and what do you still have tucked away in a cupboard somewhere?


I played a lot with DOS and Windows 3.0, but mainly I grew up on Acorn computers, including accessing the web predominantly through ‘Lowcharge’ as ISP on them.

RISC OS was remarkably stable and only Windows 98 finally tempted me away.

After that I became a hardware nerd and then software. I have fond memories of each system (except for Vista), including being an early broadband adopter.

We had a few BBC Micro units around the school, and of course we all treated them with utmost reverence…

20 GOTO 10

Computer humour does not get more BASIC than this.

I can C what you’ve done here…

But R these little Perl’s really up to Scratch?

You had to cobol that together for the love of Ada!

I had a Research Machines 380Z computer at work, complete with a 12 inch monitor with a green display. That was back in late 1981 and I used to take the processor and keyboard home at weekends and plug it into my TV. The OS (CP/M, the predecessor of DOS) was on one five and a quarter inch floppy disk and user’s files on another. I bought an Epson FX80 printer and used the Text Editor (a predecessor of a word processor) to produce letters and reports. Here is what it looked like:

Credit: Wikipedia

My first home computer was a Sinclair Spectrum but that was soon replaced with a BBC B.

At least the RM380Z had floppy disk drives, Kate. Two five and a quarter inch double-sided drives, to be exact. When I bought a BBC Micro there was no need to load the OS but a cassette recorder was needed for programs and files. Like most users I soon bought a floppy disk drive.

You beat me in getting to know the Mac.

I first used computers at school as part of my applied maths A-level in about 1975. The school didn’t own any computers, but we used a dial-up service with a teletype, to do a little Algol-60 programming.

At uni, I did a little bit of Fortran programming as part of my engineering course – I think the computer was a Rank Xerox Sigma Six. Friends keener on computing (and better at soldering) were building themselves Nascom 80’s from kits, or spending their vacations pre-assembling ZX80’s for Clive Sinclair.

In my first “proper job” I joined a team that were using an IBM mainframe, accessed only via punched cards, to model renewable energy systems. But I soon graduated to using early massive VDUs to access a DEC PDP11/34 minicomputer and then onto a CP/M based micro (which only cost £3500).

At about the same time, I got my first home machine, an Acorn Atom, the forerunner of the BBC.

My first forays online didn’t take place until about 1997, when I acquired a Pentium II era home PC running Windows 98.

Interestingly, where we have engineering or science application programs that use simple text files for their input data, individual lines of input data are still often referred to as “cards”.

I realised this a while ago and checked that it was not just “old gits” doing this but pretty much everyone.

OH yes I remember them well, and paper tape.

I was always fascinated by technology, and being able to control things on a screen held enormous allure. In the early ’80s I bought an Atari 800 for an outrageous price (and which I still have), followed by a Sinclair QL.

The QL field was ripe for development, so a pal and I started to write games for it and Sinclair became interested and published the games. That led to the QL magazine people becoming interested and commissioning articles on how to write Games in Assembler.

There was a tremendous desire for articles on software, so after a while I found I was writing for around a dozen magazines, which started to interfere with the day job, although both involved keyboards – of a sort.

The QL (which I still have) was a good machine for its day and we had it adapted for a floppy drive. Learning Assembler was valuable, and I suspect many now have no idea how to program, simply because they don’t really understand how it all works. Working at very low level with processor Mnemonics – as was done on the 68008 – really forces you to learn the basics. Back then there was no internet, of course, but we could see how it could be developed.

The use of a Cray for a week was also useful in teaching me about NAND gates – all the Cray used at that time. But the QL was ahead of its time and the first units shipped with a flawed ‘for-next’ loop implementation, which the press slammed and really doomed the machine, because they got the first faulty units, which was quickly rectified, but the damage was done.

It’s easy to forget, but the QL shipped with Spreadsheet, WP and Graphics software and beat the Apple launch by a month. However, it wasn’t ready, with numerous bugs and flawed micro drives – their storage medium – so the press slated it and really finished it off.

A friend of mine had a hobby business, providing computerised results analyses for motor sport car rallies.

He used a bevvy of Z80 based micros, NorthStars of course 🙂 , for his main software but also adopted QL’s as output devices, so he could have inexpensive colour displays for leaderboard results and such like. (Umpty years later, Rasberry Pi’s now often fulfil similar duties, not least at the Welsh Highland Railway museum.)

We were all looking forward to a new, 68000 based, generation of micro when IBM released the first PC, based on the 8088 chipset.

Our youngest is after it to place in a cabinet he’s dedicated to Games machines through the ages.

I started with a ZX Spectrum followed by the BBC Micro. I didn’t get my first Windows PC until 1995 and didn’t connect to the internet until 1996.

My first foray into computing was when I started teaching in a primary school in London, where each class had a computer. Staff were a bit uncertain about them, and because I arrived early with time to investigate, I would try out a new program every day. I was lucky to be commuting with a guy who was well up in IT, and he gave me a lot of help. I loved the way that in those days you could almost have a conversation with the computer, by typing in a recognisable form of English, and I was very happy to be given responsibility for IT, so that I was teaching pupils and staff – and increasing my own knowledge at the same time.

I began with a BBC B, having seen the Sinclair ZX and thinking that it didn’t do very much. I preferred the BBC to the QL, though that was more powerful, but the BBC was closer to the logic I understood. That and a dot matrix printer made my electric typewriter redundant though not before I had typed numerous essays on it, with liberal use of the correction tape. In college the Gestetner was king and with judicial use of nail varnish one could produce a perfect copy. I hated the purple Banda machine copies. The great thing about the BBC word processor was, that for the first time one could archive onto five and a quarter floppies. From those early day I moved up the system as it developed. Once the BBC had departed, there was no incentive to programme the machine -a laborious process with limited potential – and everything was done for one. The mouse found things and the computer did the rest. Floppy discs were replaced by numerous updates including Iomegia Zips which I still have. I still archive to CD though mostly for musical scores I don’t wish to alter again. USB does the rest as does external hard drives as back up. Having lived through the complete development from large rooms with valves to hand held power-houses I have accepted things as they happened and used those that seemed useful. In old age I probably won’t move much further up the ladder unless something turns up that makes life obviously easier. When I write, I use pen and paper first and the typing exercise also edits as I go along to refine the paper version. Of course, time is kinder on the one hand and shorter on the other!

The first machine that I programmed was a Pegasus an UNI it had 48 words of mercury delay line memory and a drum. You could explore memory with a cathode ray tube and a bank of switches. That was 1966.
I moved onto a Burroughs B2500 with 17K of memory 4 tape drives and a 10Mbyte hard drive the size of about 8 washing machines stacked 2 by 2.
My first micr computer was a TRS80 model I running Newdos80

I got my first computer in 2002. My parents bought it for me as they thought it would help me in school, though I was not allowed to use it for more than 1 hour a day (parents thought “it is bad for the eyes”). The internet connection was very bad, and every time our phone rung, the internet would go down.

I remember how I was amazed by Yahoo! (I don’t think Google was very popular back then). I still went to my local library to look through encyclopedias, but the internet definitely had more information available. I remember how I was one of the first people in class who (!) printed out a school report (6 pages) instead of writing it by hand. My teacher was not happy at all.

Later on, ICQ messenger became very popular. Eventually, me and my friends didn’t use the internet just for education anymore, but also for online games (e.g. Counter-Strike). It was fun.

I guess so 🙂 It was a bit hard though to convince them to allow me to use the internet/computer for more than 1 hour a day, back then it was such a novelty for them.

Mine was a MESH machine running Windows 95, which my dad brought home from work. I mostly used it for playing computer games: Worms, Sim City, Monkey Island — any other fans out there?

I love Sim City! And the Sims! Recently tried to play the latest versions. Oh, it is not the same.

Worms..Oh, spent hours playing with my friends. So fun.

Great! I’m a pretty big fan of Sim City 2 to 4. Not played the more recent ones; I doubt my computer would be able to handle running them very well. The Sims was brilliant too.

The modern version – Cities: Skylines – is an incredible leap forwards in terms of city sims. There’s even a YouTube account that has used it as a medium to produce a series exploring the politics and history of urbanism/colonialism/transportation – which just goes to show how flexible it is.

My first experience with computer games was Sims City 4. I used to love to build the cities and then destroy them with natural disasters. Oh to play god lol.

I also used to play Age of Empires 2, Medieval Total War 2, World of Warcraft 3 and StarCraft. Classics!!

Agree, Adam, the way this game is developing reminds me a bit of the Civilization game series. I also like how detailed the gameplay is and that you can see “life” in the city itself.

I wish they would bring similar engine to Sims 4, which is currently lacking such basic feature as an open world (which was available in Sims 3). However, I don’t think this type of update will ever happen. Not with EA in charge, at least.

I loved Age of Empires! I also enjoyed playing Zues and Emperor rise of the middle kingdom and similar games where you can build your own civilizations.

And yes, SimCity had this fun feature to start a tornado and things like that..

I still have Monkey Island along with Kyrandia, Discworld, Sam & Max, Lost Vikings, etc, many on floppies.

My favourite early RPG game was Betrayal at Krondor. Anyone else play it?

My earliest memories are mostly playing DOS games with my dad – Lemmings, Hocus Pocus and Xargon mostly (I’ll be impressed if anyone else has heard of the latter two!). All installed from floppy disks.

C :\\games
C :\\games\lemmings.exe

We also had a telex machine in the office at home – I’m still not sure what my dad used it for, but I used to enjoy printing things out from it as a child.

Very vaguely, I do remember Xargon! But I think, my uncle was not playing it on PC, he had it on Dendy/Nintendo? Or even Sega? How nostalgic.

I remember playing Lemmings, Sonic and Echo on my cousin’s Sega. A can still perfectly hum the Sonic Green Hills theme.


What were people’s first computers, mobile phones, and/or games consoles?

For me (showing my age here – or there lack of):

Computer: Mac Book Pro 17 Inch 2009 Model

Mobile Phone: LG-KU990 (LG Viewty)

Games Console: GameBoy Colour

Computer: PC with Windows 98
Mobile phone: Nokia 3310. But before that I had a pager and I felt so cool!
Games Console: Dendy/Nintendo, Sega

Computer: Acorn Risc PC 600 (although we also had a Compaq around the same time, and an 80286 Windows 3.0 laptop – I forget the model)

Mobile phone: Motorola MicroTAC 8700 (although the first one that was just mine was a Nokia 3310)

Games Console: original GameBoy

Oh, original GameBoy!

Okay Adam, follow up question, Blue, Red or Yellow?

#TeamRed of course. Yellow wasn’t even a thing until later (I did get it then, though).

Oh no! I’m #TeamBlue. We can never speak again (joking)! 😉

And who was your starter?

For me it was Bulbasaur, but I had a Tortoise so it was like really have the pokemon in my house.

You might find this interesting too – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R1hjjFGfps

Charmander – eventually a level 100 Charizard (no rare candy required). Truly the finest starter. 😉

Wow! I bow before you’re Master Training Skills!

Jigglypuff was the best!

Gotta be Magikarp!

Long story beforehand, but the first computers I really got near were at work in the late 80s. I worked for a charity and it was very behind the times (still is). There were still typewriters in the office and Amstrad computers. We had to fight to get to use the Amstrads, imagine that.

It might be interesting to look at how we used computers online in the early days. I remember using Telnet, Gopher and FTP to access information on other computer systems and move files around. Gopher was effectively the predecessor of the web. I decided to investigate the web and discovered I needed to install NCSA Mosaic – an early web browser – on my Mac. I’ve still got the booklet I was given at the time and it points out the importance of making use of good quality resources.

Hi Kate @katebevan – Please could you fix the link to the BBC archive, which should be: https://computer-literacy-project.pilots.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk

A fascinating walk down memory lane.

Fixed that for you, Wavechange. Sorry about that.

Thanks Oscar. Some of these programmes seem so quaint. In this one from 1984, Ian McNaught-Davis illustrates an early graphical user interfaces and a new tool called a mouse. The rest is history: https://computer-literacy-project.pilots.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk/11fb8f62b7ff21ea5593a259c62fa713 (starts at 19:15)

Greatly enjoying this!

I remember going on a school trip to see Leo, one of the first commercial computers built for J Lyons, the chain of cafes and restaurants in the mid to late 50s. Then in the early 60s my first exposure to computing first hand was hand and electrically cranked calculating machines at UCL. One of the largest computers in the country was ATLAS which had a building to itself nearby, but I never got near it as a lowly undergraduate student.
In my first job, around 1963, the company had an IBM360/30 and I programmed that in self-tough FORTRAN to make various simulations and calculations for telecommunications R&D. We used decks of punched cards.
Moving on a few years found me still simulating designs, this time over an audio coupler telephone modem with an IBM 370/125 (?). Now I had to regress to using BASIC, but finally managed to persuade them to mount the FORTRAN compiler. Then the R&D department got it’s own VAX computer and the FORTRAN simulations continued in FORTRAN.
With the arrival of the Intel 8080 microprocessor in the mid 70s we acquired an Intel development system which ran CP/M. We were now programming in ASSEMBLER and later in PL/M, an Intel developed PASCAL like language.
In 1982 the BBC Micro was announced and I acquired my first home computer. Back to BASIC!
The IBM PC was introduced at about the same time, but I didn’t swap from the BBC to an early PC till after I joined IBM in 1986 where we each had our own, running DOS3.1.
Working on the RS6000 series processors we used IBM’s version of UNIX, AIX as an operating system. This slowly converged to be a version of LINUX.
Since then I’ve had 5 different PCs of my own most of which I built myself, and I’ve used just about every version of DOS and Windows right up to my current Windows 10. As for languages, there have been several, but mainly C.

Thanks that’s interesting. I’ve got a book about Leo somewhere.

I think one of my UK “maths wiz” heroes, Boris Davison, was involved with Atlas, inter alia.

A pal of mine was the NAG library optimizer for the Cray II. Got his PhD doing it and we had lots of fun playing Bridge on the Cray II seating.