Putting the 'ting!' in computing

It might seem like nobody needs to go to Swindon twice in the space of one month. Not even people who live in Swindon. But I've got a bit of a soft spot for it, because it's making an admirable effort to be a good place to live.

It was the first town in Britain to get rid of speed cameras. It's got a permanent giant-screen TV in a big open plaza in the middle of town showing BBC News, and (one would hope) major sporting events and the like. It's got free internet and email terminals in the street (though none of the ones I tried actually worked). And it's also going to be the first town in the country to be completely covered by free public wifi. (Which I didn't realise was largely already in place, or I'd have tested it out during this trip.)

On this particular occasion, though, WoSblog was making a special visit to see one of Swindon's more niche attractions.

We'd actually stumbled across it on the previous trip by accident. The Museum Of Computing used to be homed in a distant location on the outskirts of town, actually part of a far-flung campus of Bath University, and all but inaccessible to anyone without a car. But when the university closed the campus in 2008, the Museum had to find new premises, and unbeknown to me (until last month) had ended up slap bang in the heart of the town centre.

When we'd happened by chance upon the new venue during the Snack Patrol trip it was 10 minutes before closing time, so we didn't bother going in. But I made a mental note to return soon (and was about to set out last Tuesday when a last-minute check revealed that the volunteer-staffed Museum is in fact only open on Saturdays and Mondays, so watch out for that). Today, though, the excitement started before I even got in.

Stationed outside the front door of the Museum was something that hadn't been there the time before, and something I've waited half my life to see in the flesh – a genuine, actual Sinclair C5. The commercially-disastrous electric tricycle that marked the beginning of the end for the UK's favourite eccentric computer boffin this side of Magnus Pyke is even smaller and flimsier in reality than it looks in pictures and TV footage, and I was almost scared to put my full 11-and-a-half-stone weight on it. (Hey, what do you expect from someone who spends half his life on Snack Patrol?)

But – like most of the exhibits in the MoC – there were no "KEEP OFF" signs, so I jumped aboard. Despite the freaky handlebars-under-the-knees design, the C5 is surprisingly comfortable to sit in, and feels very well balanced. A wheel lock prevents passers-by cycling off in it, but there's enough movement to feel how the vehicle sits on the road, and the responsiveness of the steering.

The seated position makes pedalling (backwards, at least) a breeze, and the whole thing is so disconcertingly light that you could easily heft it up on your shoulders to carry it up a flight of stairs, because it's built like a child's toy. (I don't know if this one had had the "engine" taken out or anything.)

While I was simultaneously marvelling at how nice it was to sit in, pondering how much I'd have paid to rent it for half an hour and scoot around the shopping precincts on it (at least a fiver), and mulling over what a suicidal deathtrap it would have been on the actual roads it was ostensibly supposed to be driven on (you're miles below car-drivers' eyeline, never mind trucks or buses or the like, and the plastic chassis offers about as much protection as a kitchen towel), a nice lady came out from the Museum and offered to take my picture in it.

I declined this kind offer graciously, but we chatted about the doomed venture for a bit as I clambered out and went through the door into the Museum proper. "We hid it when Sir Clive came round", she revealed conspiratorially. "It was a bit of a sensitive area for him."

The MoC isn't the biggest museum you'll ever see – in fact, it's about the size of a typical branch of McDonalds or Starbucks, and if you didn't stop to smell the roses you could whiz round it in about two minutes. But you get a lot of top-quality exhibits for your £3.50 entrance fee, and if you've got any interest in the subject of computing at all you'll see plenty to get your money's worth.

I've got an entire cellar full of ancient computers and peripherals and the like, but there were dozens of things I'd never seen for real before, and things I never thought I'd see again. I've deliberately not included them all, because you really should go and visit for yourself – this very British labour of love deserves your support – but here are a few of the highlights.

The museum encompasses the entire history of computing, not just of home computers or games machines. It goes all the way back to pre-war calculating machines (and indeed even features a number of antique slide rules), but among the more exciting displays to an old ZX81 user was a collection – in excellent condition – of some of the scientific calculators that were Sinclair's first steps into the world of electronics.

Also displayed are the semi-famous Casio MG-880 calculator, which had a frantic and challenging "Number Invaders" game built in – I think I have an emulator for it somewhere – and a remarkable bronze-coloured metal "Addiator" mechanical calculator, both of which drew gasps of unexpected recognition from your reporter.

My best friend from school, Wee Ivor, had one of the former – a great source of jealousy to the rest of us in the maths class – and I owned one of the latter myself, which I suspect I obtained with redemption tickets in an amusement arcade on a childhood seaside holiday. It's probably still in a box in my parents' house somewhere.

As well as the Sinclair calculators, Uncle Clive's lesser-known works were very well represented in general, including a Sinclair PC200 business machine, the Z88 notebook, and even the ICL One Per Desk. The latter is an extraordinary-looking machine, with the aesthetic styling of a 1930s typewriter despite being based on the internal architecture of the sleek, futuristic black monolith that was the Sinclair QL.

I haven't pictured the OPD, partly as one reason for you to visit the museum yourself, but also partly because a 2D image just doesn't do it justice. It's not dissimilar in design, though, to the eye-catching beast that is the Commodore Pet, a cash-register-esque machine so sturdy you could drop it out of an aeroplane and sink an aircraft carrier with it.

The award for the most starkly brutal piece of design, though, has to go to the enormous black steel anvil that is the Research Machines 380Z from 1978. Though actually from Oxford, it wouldn't have looked out of place in Communist-era East Germany, and you can easily picture political dissidents having one tied to their ankles before being lobbed into the Oder-Havel Kanal.

A contemporary of the RM380Z and the Pet which is also on display is the Sharp MZ-80K. The most interesting thing about this early Japanese computer is probably its unique non-ASCII graphics character set, something which has stuck in my mind ever since I saw a type-in listing in the May 1983 issue of Computer & Video Games for an MZ-80K game called Mad Max, which used the characters to create an amazingly rich and varied racing-game landscape that reminds me of Konami's splendid Road Fighter.

(C&VG ran MZ-80K listings most months in 1982-3, which is a bit odd when you think about it. How many of its readers could possibly have owned one? Anyway, as someone who was still using a ZX81 at the time, with its 32-by-22-pixel resolution and enemies made of X and V shapes, it looked like a thing of magic and wonder.)

But not all the computers of the past are hulking great monsters of things. The MoC also boasts a comprehensive collection of teeny tiny devices, some of which make even the ZX81 look like a bit of a fatso. The most impressive is perhaps the Sharp PC-1245, an incredible machine which packs a full keyboard, numeric keypad, microcassette deck and even a printer into a form factor barely bigger than an opened-up Psion Series 3. What's more, the calculator part can be detached from the base unit and carried around in a pocket by itself.

The museum also provided my first-ever hands-on experience with a Mattel Intellivision and its ultra-weird (and surprisingly lightweight) disc joypad, which made me thankful for emulation. The "Pong To Playstation" sub-exhibit showcases games consoles from Pong machines right up to the Wii, most of which have games plugged in that you can have a play on. The majority of the exhibits at the MoC, in fact, can be freely touched and prodded and mucked around with, and several are powered-up and ready for use, such as the BBC Micro just waiting to have

10 PRINT "WoSblog is the best"
20 GOTO 10

typed into it with the BBC's fantastic clattery old keyboard.

For such a small space, the museum is packed with treasures. Everyone will have their own nostalgic reactions to different things, and yours won't be the same as mine – I was thrilled just to finally encounter real-life versions of things I'd only ever seen in black-and-white adverts in Your Computer in 1983 (like the Jupiter Ace, the Sord M5, the unexpectedly diminutive Tandy TRS-80 and the strikingly stylish Oric Atmos), as well as odd gadgets I'd once owned, like the Amstrad NC100 word-processor (which saved your text out to standard 3.5" floppy disks but whose files weren't compatible with any other kind of word processing device under the sun) and things I'd never heard of (like the spectacular Exidy Sorcerer home micro, from the makers of coin-op hits like Venture and Targ).

(I couldn't work out what the drawing of a keyboard on top of the Sorcerer was for. It looked wipe-clean, though, so maybe you were supposed to mark the controls for games on it with a felt tip like a sort of primitive overlay, then clean them off when you loaded something else.)

But there's something in the Museum Of Computing for pretty much everyone (everyone over the age of about 25, anyway), and WoSblog gives it an unqualified thumbs-up. Even competing against the 99p Store and the single scariest road junction in Britain (the pic at the top of this page), it's probably the best thing in Swindon. And that's praise indeed.


8 Responses to “Putting the 'ting!' in computing”

  1. Flashback!  Our school computer labs in the mid to late 80s had a bunch of Research Machines terminals that looked (slightly) more up to date than that 380Z, but in one corner was the Anvil Of Floppy Disks where the software was loaded, and everybody saved their files.  Early versions of Wordstar, isn't it?  Wasn't it?  Control – K – B, Control – K – K, look teacher!  I've made a block with some text in it! 

  2. Irish Al Says:

    C&VG listing! Squee! I've typed in a few C64 ones in my day. They tended to be about 10 lines of BASIC that loaded 5 million lines of machine code in line after line of DATA statements.
    It was fun back then – even before I got a micro I pored obsessively over black and white screenshots for games like Shadowfax and tried to imagine what it would be like to have a computer at home.

  3. One of my old history professors was an absolutely bonkers evangelist for the Cambridge Z88. I spoke to him several years ago now and he was still bloody using it daily! I borrowed one for a while in the 90s just out of curiosity and I have to say it was a brilliant (though flawed) device, years ahead of its time.

  4. Splendid article. Probably my biggest "aw, I WISH I'd bought that" car boot sale regret is the Sinclair C5 on sale at Chirk Airfield* about seven years ago. Yes, it was expensive, yes I was sharing a small flat at the time and would have had nowhere to actually put it, but wow. A Sinclair C5. I think it was only about fifty quid, too.
    (*So good, it's mentioned in a Half Man Half Biscuit song, car boot sale fans.)
    However, surely you'd meant
    10 PRINT "WoSblog is the best ";
    20 GOTO 10

    For the true full-screen scrolly BBC Basic magnificence, Stu.
    Ooh, also: Pop Fact: I'm quite sure the Pet Shop Boys used a Commodore Pet as a prop in the set of their 1991 Performance tour. It wasn't specifically pointed out in any way, just included in the set (just sitting on a desk for either 'Shopping' or 'Rent') as a great little in-joke for any geeks present.

  5. TigerTiger Says:

    I saw a Sinclair C5 for reals a few weeks back. Somebody was riding it along Bournemouth sea front. A few minutes later another guy trundled past the opposite direction on a Segway. Must have been some kind of nerdy alternative transport convention.

  6. Liverpool's got one of those big screens! And e-mail terminals in the street!

    And they're all covered in shit. :/

  7. The Intellivision is the one machine that's never been emulated properly IMO.  There's just no replacement for that mad keypad.  My first ever console and still one of my faves… Tron Deadly Discs, Night Stalker, Astrosmash, AD&D, Lock 'n' Chase and a fantastic version of Super Cobra… happy times.

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