Designing the world’s first home computers

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN Long before they found their way into living rooms around the world, computers were the preserve of universities, research institutes and corporate headquarters. After all, the blinking, bulky mainframes of the 1960s might easily fill a room of their own. The invention of the microprocessor […]

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Long before they found their way into living rooms around the world, computers were the preserve of universities, research institutes and corporate headquarters. After all, the blinking, bulky mainframes of the 1960s might easily fill a room of their own.

The invention of the microprocessor — Intel’s 4004 was the first to be made commercially available in 1971 — changed all that. Manufacturers were finally able to produce machines small enough to fit into customers’ homes.

Yet, the question was: Could firms persuade people to actually want one there?

The story of how computers infiltrated our homes is not one of technology, but one of marketing and design, according to writer and journalist Alex Wiltshire, whose new book, “Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation,” tells the industry’s early history through its most influential models.

“The technology was already in existence,” he said in a phone interview. “But what was important was the idea of putting it into a form that could be bought and easily used.”

The very first models in Wiltshire’s book were aimed at hobbyists and industry insiders. These so-called “kit” computers performed only basic functions, such as binary arithmetic, and their appeal lay in adding new components or otherwise modifying the hardware. In other words, they were all function and no form — “computers for computers’ sake,” as the author put it.

Wiltshire's book features many of the era's most important computers, enticingly shot by photographer John Short. Pictured here is an example of an early "kit" model, the Minivac 601 was primarily used by businesses to familiarize employees with computers.

Wiltshire’s book features many of the era’s most important computers, enticingly shot by photographer John Short. Pictured here is an example of an early “kit” model, the Minivac 601 was primarily used by businesses to familiarize employees with computers. Credit: John Short

But the arrival of user-friendly machines like the Commodore PET 2001 and Apple II in 1977 heralded a turning point.

“There was a massive change around the idea of, ‘What if these computers were packaged, presented and designed in a form that anyone could use?’ — that they wouldn’t require people to learn soldering or computer languages, or to devote several rooms of their houses,” Wiltshire said.

“What if there were these objects that people could buy off the shelf and just plug into their TVs?

“That was the moment that the idea of a ‘home computer’ was born, and it was absolutely down to design.”

Brave new world

A big challenge was for computers “not to be scary,” Wiltshire said. “Anything they could do to say, ‘Hey I could be in your house, I’m not obtrusive and I’m not going to take over.'”

Indeed, while some of the early models boasted of their processing power — with names like Intertec Superbrain, pictured top, for instance — others were marketed in altogether more welcoming ways.

Genie, Acorn, Aquarius, Rainbow, Apricot and Alice are just some of the appealing brand names to appear in Wiltshire’s book, which was built around the collection at the UK’s Centre for Computing History (giving his selection a slightly British slant).

The "portable" Philips P2000C weighed 15 kilograms and was fitted with a 9-inch green-screen monitor.

The “portable” Philips P2000C weighed 15 kilograms and was fitted with a 9-inch green-screen monitor. Credit: John Short

This messaging was often reinforced by colorful keyboards and rounded, unobtrusive casings in shades of beige and gray. Yet, in the industry’s early days, there was little agreement on what a computer should look like.

The QWERTY keyboard, still a standard today, was widely adopted from the start. But everything else was up for experimentation. Some computers had small monitors built in, while others plugged into TVs. Storage appeared on the side, underneath or completely separate on external disks. Sharp’s MZ-80K had a mini cassette drive, while the ICL Merlin Tonto even featured a telephone receiver.

Yet, all were united by a focus on simplicity and size. Take the Osborne 1, an early portable computer aimed at business audiences. It may have weighed 11 kilograms, but as a 1981 advert proclaimed, it could store “the equivalent of 1,600 typed pages on floppy diskettes” — far more than the traditional briefcase its size was compared to.

An industry in turmoil

The apparent simplicity of these early home computers was something of an illusion, however.

Computers’ interfaces were still far from intuitive, and usually required users to input lines of code and text commands to open and operate programs.

Wiltshire said that the industry had “almost no relationship with the wider design world” and that design choices were “made by upper management and marketing.”

“A lot of the elegance of the machines as they appeared on the box was a bit of a ruse,” he added, “because you’d still have trailing wires going into the monitor and into the disk drive.”

Rare for the time, the C/WP Cortex came in a variety of colors.

Rare for the time, the C/WP Cortex came in a variety of colors. Credit: John Short

The costs could also be deceptive. Add-ons, disks and external hardware often brought de facto prices above those advertised. And price was, in Wiltshire’s view, the main driving force in the early machines’ design — understandably so, given that the 1980s proved to be economically volatile for computer firms. “Companies would come and go,” the author said. “It was a gold rush.”

Osborne declared bankruptcy two years after the launch of its aforementioned briefcase-sized portable computer, with other big players like Spectravideo and Oric also collapsing in the decade’s price wars. The industry was also blighted by a lack of standardization, which made it incredibly laborious to develop software and games that were compatible across multiple platforms.

Developers would need to painstakingly convert their creations to the specifications of each machine.

But the era’s fierce competition also saw new technologies driving the industry forward.

Microprocessors rapidly grew in power, and the development of point-and-click graphical interfaces made computing more user-friendly than it had ever been.

End of an era

By the 1990s, standardization was also well underway, with Microsoft’s Windows operating systems — which weren’t bound to any single type of computer — establishing market dominance. Consensus began to emerge, too, on what a computer should look like: a rectangular box with a monitor on top and a keyboard out front.

“It meant that people knew what to expect, and marketers knew how to sell them,” Wiltshire explained. “It wasn’t a beautiful object. It needed to be put on desk, and (even then) you were limited in where you could put it, but it was a necessity in the ongoing assimilation of the computer into the home.”

Then came Apple’s iconic iMac G3. Created in a range of bright colors, this new generation of Macintoshes exploded onto billboards, TV screens and, ultimately, people’s homes in 1998. Its clean and (ostensibly) wire-free design was accompanied by messages reinforcing its comparative simplicity versus the era’s bulkier PCs. “Step one: Plug in,” went one of Apple’s iconic TV ads. “Step two: Get connected. Step three… there’s no step three.”

Apple's iconic iMac G3 came in a range of bright colors and was marketed as being easier to use than the era's bulkier PCs.

Apple’s iconic iMac G3 came in a range of bright colors and was marketed as being easier to use than the era’s bulkier PCs. Credit: John Short

Fittingly, the iMac G3 is the very last model featured in Wiltshire’s book. It signals the end of an era and the beginning of another — one where personal computers became covetable design items.

“People had accepted that this beige box was going to live on their desks, and they’d have to put up with it,” the author explained. “Then Apple said, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this — this could be a beautiful object. It can be elegant … and it’s going to part of your everyday life, not just the thing you do work on.’

“That was the start of the world we live in now.”

Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation,” published by Thames & Hudson, is available now.

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