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Videomaster Superscore VM-8, 1976

In a world accustomed to hyper-realistic, web-connected, 3D, virtual reality, multi-player video games it is hard to convey the excitement many of us felt, back in the 1970s, playing a game called Pong. This involved batting a small square ‘ball’ back and forth on a living room TV screen; games and tournaments could last for hours – life was much simpler back then... If you want to get all hoity-toity about it, the electronic video game was one of the seminal developments in home entertainment technology in the past 100 years. That is not meant to diminish the tremendous impact the phonograph, radio, television and even the VCR had on society, but these were simply increasingly sophisticated delivery mechanisms for pre-packaged information and entertainment. The home video game was different and what appeared on the screen was entirely generated by the console, rather than an external source or recording medium. Players were largely in control of what happened and playing games involved elements of skill, judgement, interactivity and even luck. That contrasts with what went before, which to put it crudely, was simply the passive consumption of ready-made broadcast and pre-recorded material. Well, that’s one way to introduce the Videomaster Superscore VM-8 video game console; a much simpler way to describe it is to say it was part of an entirely new experience in home entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!

 

The VM-8 made by UK company Videomaster and this and the many other consoles that quickly followed, bought video games to the masses in an affordable and easy to use package. In this case all you had to do was pop in some batteries plug a single lead into the TV’s aerial socket, tune it into UHF channel 36 and you were ready to play the four (or six) games on offer. The VM-8 was unusual in that in its basic form it had no external parts; the game Paddle controllers are built into the case. It couldn’t be any simpler, or much cheaper, especially if you opted for the self-assembly kit, priced at £29.95. If you wanted a ready-built one it would set you back £40.00, which was still, albeit briefly, competitive, though it wasn’t long before Far Eastern manufacturers ramped up production and prices tumbled.

 

By the way, the earlier mention of six games refers to two shooting games, labelled Aux 1 and 2 on the console’s game selector switch. Basically it’s a spot of light bouncing around the screen, which you have to zap with a ‘light gun’ that plugs into a connector on the side of the case. This was sold separately or as part of a package outfit. The complete line up of games on offer is: two-player Tennis and Squash, single player Solo and Football. The latter is basically the same as Tennis but with a narrow ‘goal’ at the end of the pitch, instead of the open-ended court in Tennis. The score is shown on the TV screen; sound is limited to simple plinks and plonks heard through a built-in speaker and in-game options are ball speed (fast or slow) and bat size, (large or small). There’s also a Reset button for stating a new game, a switch to turn the speaker on and off, and a socket on the side for an external mains adaptor.

 

Whilst there is no argument over the simplicity of the design there is one fairly obvious drawback; mounting the paddle controllers in the case can make it awkward to use. Both players have to sit close together, very close, knee to knee in fact, and one of them has to use it left-handed (or right-handed, if both players are left handed…). Clearly both users have be on very friendly terms, and not get too excited or the game will end up on the floor.

 

This one came from a boot sale Kent and I felt obliged to haggle the stallholder down from his optimistic £5.00 asking price to a much more realistic £1.00 in view of the rusty 1980s vintage battery wedged in the compartment on the underside of the case. I didn’t hold out much hope for it but once I opened it up it was apparent that the leakage was negligible and it hadn’t got into the works or damaged the battery contacts. The grubby case cleaned up really easily, inside and out. The only functional problem concerned the switches, which are conductive pads on the printed circuit board. Brass contacts are fitted to the back of the sliders but most of the switches didn’t work or were intermittent thanks to an oxide film on both pads and the contacts. Fortunately it came off easily with light application of a glass-fibre brush. The batteries proved to be a really tight fit; it looks like C cells have grown slightly since the seventies. After a lot of swearing the batteries were installed and the aerial plug connected to a telly. It took only a minute or two to tune into the signal (not counting the half an hour it to remember how to manually tune the TV…). You might suppose that after all these years and countless hours spent playing video games, old-tyme Tennis wouldn’t be much fun, and you would be right, but it was still a mildly diverting ten minute trip down memory lane and a reminder of just how far video games have come in a relatively short time.  

 

What Happened To It?

The first commercial video arcade game console featuring the classic ‘Pong’ table tennis game appeared in 1972 but it relied on scores of microchips and a lot of complex circuitry, which made it impractical, and far too costly for the consumer market. However, back then digital microchip technology was advancing at an incredible pace. Within a couple of years the chip count for a simple Pong like game had been reduced to fewer than 10, prices plummeted and this jump-started the market for what would become the first generation of home games consoles. Videomaster were there at the beginning and in 1974 became what was almost certainly the first volume manufacturer in the UK. The VM-8 and its rivals are often mistakenly referred to as first generation game consoles but it’s actually a second-generation design as it uses a single microchip to generate all of the graphics and sound. The chip in question was the revolutionary AY-38-500, developed by General Instruments and it was a real game changer -- excuse the pun. All it needs in the way of external components is a power supply, a few simple controls, a loudspeaker and an RF modulator, which converts the video information generated by the chip into a low-power UHF signal that can be received on a TV set’s tuner.

 

AY-38-500 based consoles had a relatively short shelf life as developments followed thick and fast. Within a few months new chips started to appear. Initially they only provided marginal improvements, like a colour display and TV sound, but chips with more colourful and sophisticated games with better graphics swiftly followed, then everything changed. The late 1970s saw the arrival of the third-generation or  ‘programmable’ games consoles, where the user could choose from scores, and eventually hundreds of games using plug-in memory chip cartridges. At about the same time low-cost personal computers got in on the act and the video game market began its exponential expansion and the extraordinary journey towards the multi-billion pound/dollar mega industry it is today. 

 

There is a healthy collectors market for vintage video game consoles but the serious money is reserved for rare models and they have to be in mint condition. This Videomaster Superscore is neither; a good example, in its original box with a light gun could be worth anything up to £50 or so. On a good day with the wind in the right direction this one might fetch £10 on ebay, but its unlikely to ever make me, or my grandchildren, rich.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                      1976

Original Price:               £40.00 (£24.95 in kit form)

Value Today:                 £10.00 (0817)

Features:                       Black & White display, single game chip General Instruments AY-38-500, 4 + 2 games: Tennis, Football, Squash & Solo (+ 2 shooting games with optional ‘gun’), presettable ball speed & size, sound on/off, internal 50mm speaker, integral paddle controls, RF output (UHF Ch 36), available in ready built of kit form  

Power req.                        6 x 1.5 volt C cells and 240 volt mains adaptor

Dimensions:                      304 x 110 x 32mm

Weight:                             600g

Made (assembled) in:       UK       

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     7


Psion Series 3a Personal Digital Assistant, 1993

Those of us who survived the first digital revolution of the 80s and 90s sometimes find it amusing -- in a weird and ironic sort of way – to hear people griping about their smartphones and tablets -- they don’t know they’re born…

 

In the beginning, in the age of the mobile phone, but long before they became even slightly clever, let alone smart, portable computing and communications meant lugging a massive laptop and a bag full of widgets and cables around with you. The arrival of the first generation of Personal Desktop Assistants in the mid 1980s (later to become Personal Digital Assistants) or PDAs, promised to pack everything the tech-savvy traveller and businessperson on the move needed into convenient pocket-sized packages. However, the reality rarely, if ever, lived up to the flashy adverts. By the early 90s, and after a lot of false starts, things were beginning to look up. PDAs were showing the first signs of becoming practical gadgets and one of the early pioneers and arguably responsible for taming the technology, was the UK company Psion.

 

The Psion Series 3, launched in 1991 was a real game changer. It was an ingenious clamshell styled device with a proper qwerty keyboard, a useful suite of pre-installed office software and some very useable communications facilities. These included the option of a compact external modem, or better still, a data link cable, to connect it to a GSM mobile phone. Unfortunately early Series 3 models were let down by indifferent performance, dicky hinges, a gloomy screen and a lack of software support but by 1993 virtually all of the bugs had been ironed out with the arrival of the Series 3a. This model featured a beefed-up processor, extra memory, updated software, improved screen – later models even had a backlight – a growing library of applications and accessories, printer connectivity and a hugely impressive battery life of 40 hours or more on a pair of AA cells.

 

One of the 3a’s most important features was that suite of programs and with an optional software package called Psi Win and the included 3Link serial connection cable, it could almost seamlessly exchange documents, files and data with the all powerful Microsoft Office, running on a Windows PC. It turned what was already a very agreeable pocket organiser into a highly competent mobile extension of a traditional desktop PC. Add a modem or phone link cable and with access to a phone socket or mobile signal you had everything you needed to conduct your business anywhere in the world.

 

Unlike the majority of its contemporaries the 3a looks and feels like something that has been designed by someone who understands, and actually lived in the real world. In short it is very useable, from the well thought out Epoc operating system and software to the ingenious clamshell case. Thanks to the clever hinged battery compartment and application control strip, in the open position it appears to be much larger than it actually is. (Unfortunately the hinge problem was never fully solved and they had a nasty habit of breaking).

 

The keyboard is a delight to use, everything falls neatly to hand and navigating between applications and scrolling through menus is an absolute breeze. It’s incredibly flexible, extra memory and applications can be easily installed using the two cunningly concealed SSD (Solid State Disk) slots either side of the keyboard. The excellent software package has bonus feature in the shape of OPL or Open Programming Language, which allows users and developers to create their own applications and games. This resulted in a large and active community of owners and forums for exchanging ideas plus a very healthy market for shareware and commercial software, the precursors of today’s app stores.       

 

There was a downside, of course, and that was the price. This 1Mb 3a, which I have had from new, had a starting price of £329, plus to get it to do anything really useful you had to add on the cost of the Psi Win package and various connecting cables. That was a fair chunk of money in 1993. Fortunately for me it was part funded by the publishers of the magazines I was working for at the time. Nevertheless it was a good investment – for them at least – enabling (compelling…) me to work a lot of unpaid overtime in hotel rooms or whilst travelling and to submit copy when away from the office.

 

It led a pretty hard life but you’d hardly know it. It still looks as good as new on the outside, though one of the hinges has a small crack that’s not going to get any better. It also works as well as the day it was made and picking it up again, after an interval of 10 years or more, was like riding a bike. No need for instructions or reminders, it’s entirely intuitive and the almost faultless user interface still manages to put a lot of today’s slick smartphone apps to shame.

 

What Happened To It?

Psion’s Series 3 went through a number of revisions and improvements but it was eventually retired, and replaced by the slightly larger, faster and more sophisticated Series 5 model in 1998 by which time more than 1.5 million of them had been sold. Incidentally, there was no Series 4. Legend has it that Psion skipped a generation because of concern over superstition surrounding the number 4 -- so-called Tetraphobia -- in Asian markets. Whilst the Series 5 was fairly popular it never quite matched the success of the Series 3. By the late 90s and early noughties the world was changing at an unprecedented rate. Compact and very capable small laptops or notebooks were being priced to sell, and the forerunners of today’s smartphones, like the Nokia Communicator were starting to appear, providing a taste of the things to come. The Series 3 and 5 had been influential proving grounds for the new generation of portable devices but the simple fact was, the PDA’s day was over.

 

They may be yesterday’s tech, but there are still plenty of them around, some still in regular use, and the really good news, for collectors of vintage tech, is that you can pick up a working Series 3a for less than £25.00 on ebay. If you’re feeling lucky, and handy with a screwdriver, you might even be able to put one together from parts as there’s up to half a dozen or more basket cases on ebay, often selling for just a few pounds, though be warned, they’re quite fiddly to work on. Over time the price of mint working examples is going to rise but it’s probably going to be a slow process. A lot of them were made and because they were so expensive they were usually well looked after. When eventually they were retired relatively few of them would have ended up in the bin so it doesn’t look as though the supply is going to dry up anytime soon. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen            1993

Original Price     £329.00

Value Today       £25.00 (0316)

Features             EPOC 3 operating system, NEC V30H CPU 7,68MHz, 1Mb RAM, 131mm monochrome LCD 480 x 160 pixels, preinstalled software: spreadsheet, word processor, database, organiser, world time clock, calculator, OPL programming language. RS-232C & Serial comms port (19200 bps), 2 x flash SSD memory card slots, built-in microphone & speaker, tone dialler (via speaker), qwerty keyboard, clamshell case

Power req.                       2 x 1.5-volt AA cells & CR1620 button cell (memory backup)

Dimensions:                     165 x 85 x 21mm

Weight:                             210g

Made (assembled) in:       UK

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


Amstrad NC100 Notepad Computer, 1992

There’s no record of how many people took up Alan Sugar’s unusually generous money back offer on the Amstrad NC100 notepad computer – the promise was that you could figure out how to use it in just five minutes – but for once he was on pretty safe ground. The NC100 was one of Amstrad’s better offerings, a tough, practical portable computer with a genuinely useful assortment of software and features, at a fraction of the cost, and weight, of the laptops of the day. One of Alan Sugar’s undoubted talents in the early days was that he knew his customers. It was configured to appeal mainly to business users with a word processor, calculator and organiser programs (diary, address book, time manager, clock & alarm) stored in the device’s ROM memory. A set of 4 AA cells would keep it running for up to 20 hours, which made it ideal for people on the move and it could be connected to a range of peripherals, including modems and printers. Serious computer users and gamers could even create their own applications using the built-in BBC BASIC interpreter.

 

Above all the NC100 was small with an A4 sized footprint; it was also light and genuinely easy to use with a near full size QWERTY keyboard. Alan Sugar’s 5-minute claim was actually on the pessimistic side; most users could probably get it to do something useful in under 2 minutes, without any assistance. To compose a letter, say, all you had to do was press the On button and simple on-screen graphics showed which coloured buttons to press (yellow & red for the word processor). The next screen suggested that you give the new document a name then press Return, and you are ready start typing. More options are printed underneath the screen so there is no almost no need to remember commands or consult the instructions. For example, to spell check your document, simply press the yellow & 1 keys and the 48,000-word dictionary gets to work. It also has a surprisingly good assortment of advanced WP functions including Find and Replace, Block Move, Copy and Delete, bold, italic and underline fonts and merge contacts from the address book. The 64kb of built in memory sounds pitiful by current standards but that was more than enough to store scores of letters and documents. If you ran out of space there’s a slot on the side for a PC Card memory expansion module (up to 1MB).

 

Although the NC100 was powered by an ageing and comparatively slow Z80 8-bit processor it didn’t really matter to most users and it still had a lot going for it. It certainly didn’t suffer from the usual Amstrad handicap of being designed by or for Alan Sugar, with the inevitable cost and corner cutting that generally entailed. This was an existing product, designed and built in Japan by OEM manufacturer Nakajuma. Naturally it was customised for Amstrad and the UK market but the basic hardware, operating system and core software was tried and tested and common to a number or near identical models sold under a variety names in several other countries.

 

This one was found at a large Dorset car boot sale, covered in a thin film of muddy splashes – it had been raining – which probably went some way to explaining the ‘two quid’ asking price. Under the dirt it seemed to be in pretty good shape and there was no corrosion in the battery compartment so it had to be worth a punt. I curbed my usual urge to haggle and the stallholder unexpectedly produced a soft carry case and manual, making it even more of a bargain. After a quick wipe over with Mr Sheen it came up like new and it worked straight off. The only thing that needed replacing was a readily available CR2032 lithium backup battery.

 

Even after more than a quarter of a century the NC100 is still a perfectly useable computer. The only obvious disadvantage, compared with present day portable PCs and tablets, is the screen. Surprisingly it’s not the limitations of an 8-line display that hold it back, you quickly get used to that and in practice it’s all you need for creating simple text documents; it’s the LCD’s poor contrast range and grey blue graphics, which make it difficult to read. The lack of a backlight – presumably to save power – also makes it difficult to use in low or indirect light. This wasn’t just an Amstrad problem and similar models, like the Cambridge Z88 and Tandy WP2, also suffered but it didn’t have to be that way and at the time accessory companies were busily selling replacement high-contrast screens with vastly improved legibility

 

What Happened To It?

Amstrad was an early pioneer in the UK computer market and it had plenty of ups and downs but it will be chiefly remembered for the hugely popular PCW series of models, which first appeared in 1985. By the early nineties, though, was it starting to suffer from increasingly strong competition and its reputation had taken a knock following problems with faulty hard drives. Amstrad’s attention was beginning to shift away from desktop computers to portable devices, video games and emerging satellite television markets, but it hadn’t given up just yet.

 

The NC100 was part of a hoped for revival and the first of three notepad computers. Unfortunately, in spite of it getting generally favourable reviews it doesn’t appear to have been particularly popular and within a couple of years it had disappeared from view. Not being a ‘first’ or having any especially novel or innovative features prevents the NC100 from becoming a mainstream collectible but give it time. Relatively few of them were made and most of those were probably sent to the local dump or ended up in skips so there are not many of them around. Prices on ebay are still quite low but they have started to creep up lately so if you are interested in vintage computers, and the NC100 represents an interesting and little visited niche in the market, don’t wait too long.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1992

Original Price         £199.99

Value Today           £10 (1115)

Features                 8-bit Zilog Z80 processor, 215 x 33mm monochrome LCD screen (80 characters x 8 lines) with variable contrast, 64kb RAM, RS232 Serial port, parallel printer port, PC Card socket (memory expansion up to 1MB), external DC supply socket, built-in speaker, hinged stand/feet, software on 256kb ROM (BBC BASIC, word processor, Diary, Address Book, Time Manager, Calculator, Xmodem 

Power req.                     4 x 1.5volt AA cells

Dimensions:                   294 x 256 x 25mm

Weight:                          900g

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Alcatel Minitel 1 Videotex Terminal, 1986

It seems that a lot of people believe that the Internet appeared ready formed, as if by magic, at some point in the mid 1990s. The truth is, it evolved over several decades and was just one of a number of systems dating back to the nineteen sixties, for sending information, in the form of digital data, over public telephone networks. It may also surprise some to know that more than ten years before the Internet and World Wide Web took off millions of people were going online to search for information, buying goods and services and paying for them using credit cards. They were exchanging messages, chatting, visiting forums, looking for soulmates and saucy rendezvous’, booking airline and train tickets, checking stock market prices, weather reports, accessing government services and much more besides.

 

The real surprise, though, is that all this was happening not in the US or any of the other countries we traditionally associate with advances in computer and communications technologies, but a few miles away, over the Channel, in France. It was known as Minitel or Médium Interactif par Numérisation d'information téléphonique. The first marketing trials took place in Brittany, in 1978, and it was launched across France in 1982. It ran for 30 years, and at its peak, in 1999, was used by more than 25 million people, accessing content from over 26,000 service providers.

 

Minitel was actually one of a number of Videotex systems in operation around the world during the eighties and nineties and technically it was very similar to Prestel, which was briefly marketed in the UK. Videotex flopped in the majority of countries where it was introduced or trialled, dismally failing to capture the public imagination and this was largely due to the high costs involved. In France, however, Minitel became an almost instant hit with over 9 million terminals installed in people’s homes. In fact it was so successful that it was widely blamed for delaying the uptake of the Internet in France by several years.

 

Of course it helped that Minitel terminals were supplied free of charge to France Télécom and La Poste telephone subscribers, though users still had to pay fairly substantial connection charges to use the system for anything other than phone directory and basic services. Which brings us to this week’s subject, the Alcatel Minitel 1. It was one of the system’s most widely used terminals, entirely home-grown and made in France by Telic Alcatel. This particular one rolled off the production line in 1986.

 

It’s a brilliantly simple, an all-in-one design with a 22 cm/8.5in monochrome CRT video display and built-in keyboard and modem. The keyboard is hinged and folds up into the front of the case when not in use. It has a standard French AZERTY keyboard with a numeric keypad and a small number of function buttons. The On/Off switch is located close to the bottom right hand corner of the screen. The only other control is a brightness thumbwheel, built into the rear of the cabinet, next to a recessed carry handle. There are only two connections, a captive mains lead and a phone cable, which as you may be able to see from the photo is a huge great thing and thankfully no longer in use. Around the back there’s a concealed DIN socket for connecting to a companion printer. Operation was very straightforward, the user logged on by tapping in a phone number and after a few seconds instructions or various options appeared on the screen

 

Technically the Minitel 1 is a fairly unsophisticated ‘dumb’ terminal with minimal onboard processing power, just enough electronics in fact to decode and display pages and communicate with the keyboard and modem. The latter, which was quite advanced for its time, has a top speed of 1200 bits/sec for downloads and 75 bits/sec for upload, using V23 protocols. Later models were smaller and a little more sophisticated but the Alcatel Minitel 1 remained the backbone of the service for the best part of 30 years.

 

I came across this one at a large antiques fair in the Midlands. Apart from a few scuffs and light scratches it appeared to be in remarkably good condition. As is so often the case the stallholder had little idea of what it was or whether or not it worked, but he was still asking a highly optimistic £25.00 for something that was quite possibly a doorstop. The expression on my face and the fact that the fair was coming to an end generated an instant price reduction, to £10, and my counter offer of £7.00 was readily accepted. Back home, and with no great expectations I switched it on and was greeted with a boot up bleep and a screen displaying an ‘F’ ready function prompt, which back in the day meant that it was ready to go online. Sadly that is about all it does these days as the service was finally switched off in June 2012. One day, when I get time I’ll try hooking it up to a phone line and trying logging on to a dial-up service, but realistically the only real use for it would be to rip out the guts and install a modern PC motherboard or maybe find some way of interfacing it to a Raspberry Pi.

 

What Happened To It?

The end, when it came was inevitable and long overdue. Minitel just couldn’t compete with the Internet. By 2012 when the plug was pulled the number of registered subscribers had fallen to around 800,000 and it was no longer viable. For obvious reasons you don’t see many Alcatel Minitel terminals for sale in this country but they appear quite regularly on the French edition of ebay. Weirdly they also crop up from time to time in Ireland, where it was briefly test marketed, and also in Canada (thanks to the French connection) and the USA, where a few hundred were imported for trials, and fitted with QWERTY keyboards. It’s difficult to put a price on this sort of thing; I have seen them selling for between £10 and £80, but even £10 is big ask for something that’s next to useless. As it stands its only value is as a tehnology curio or a talking point, but don’t let that put you off. If you have the technical skills, converting a really cheap one into a working PC might be a very worthwhile exercise, and quite possibly a nice little earner.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1978

Original Price         £n/a

Value Today           £10 (1015)

Features                 22cm monochrome CRT display, fold out AZERTY keyboard, V23 modem 

Power req.                     230VAC

Dimensions:                   248 x 260 x 222mm

Weight:                          4.6kg

Made (assembled) in:    France

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Toshiba HX-10 64k MSX Computer, 1983

Throughout the 1970s and 80s Japanese consumer electronics companies rarely put a foot wrong. They were simply unbeatable when it came to developing and marketing video and audio products. Even the long drawn out tussle over VCR tape formats only ever involved Japanese firms; European contenders, and  Philips was the only serious one, was quickly seen off, but the Japanese were not infallible. They came late to the home and office computer market. Various reasons for this have been suggested but their caution was almost certainly due to concerns over the lack of standardisation, which went against the Japanese preference for order and stability.

 

Their hesitation cost them dear, though and allowed the US to gain a strong, and as it turned out, an unassailable lead in hardware and software from the likes of IBM, Apple, Atari, Commodore and Microsoft. Even small UK companies like Acorn and Sinclair were selling computers by the million, leaving the Japanese far behind. However, in the boardrooms across Japan plans were afoot to create a new standard and grab a share of the rapidly growing market.

 

In an almost unprecedented alliance between major far eastern manufacturers, including, Canon, Casio, Fujitsu, GoldStar, Hitachi, JVC, Kyocera, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, Yashica Yamaha, to name just a few, a new standard, called MSX was agreed upon, and announced to the press in June 1983. It had been developed by Kazuhiko Nishi, who at the time was Vice-President of Microsoft Japan. According to Nishi the name was borrowed from an American nuclear missile, though it was widely thought to have been derived from Microsoft Extended Basic, which was the operating system that the computers used.

 

MSX computers were designed from the outset to be adaptable home and small office machines, but with a strong emphasis on games. The first MSX computers used the tried and tested Zilog Z80A processor, with between 8 and 128KB of RAM; they had state of the art sound and graphics chips, joystick ports, a cartridge slot for games or expansion modules, simple connectivity to TV or video monitor displays, a printer port and a serial expansion bus, for connection to a wide range of peripherals that conformed to the MSX standard.

 

The Toshiba HX-10 we have here is a typical example of the breed; this one has 64KB of onboard RAM and apart from the cosmetics and variations in keyboard layout, it is very similar to most other first generation MSX machines. The most notable features, and common to almost all models is the top mounted cartridge slot, the four-way cursor buttons on the far right side and four Function keys along the top edge of the QWERTY keyboard. This was also a fairly standard item though there were regional variations for different language and characters sets. Most, like this Toshiba machine were sturdily built and very easy to set up and use. In fact, if you only wanted to play games there was almost no need to read the instructions. Just plug the RF output into the aerial socket on a TV, pop in a game cartridge and some joysticks, switch on and it was ready to run. It ticked all of the right boxes, so what could possibly go wrong…?

 

As it happens the new system got off to a slightly shaky start, in Europe at least. The press launch involved flying a group of journalists on a day trip to a top restaurant on the prom in the posh resort of Juan-les-Pines on the Côte d'Azur. As I recall only one working machine was on show, with just a couple of cheesy games, but the organisers had promised a remarkable demonstration of the computers abilities. The day before a leading technology journalist had been flown to the US, equipped with a MSX machine and an acoustic modem. The idea was he would set up a data connection to the French machine over an ordinary phone line and send us a text message. Remember, this was ten years before the Internet, the World Wide Web and email. If it had worked, on a cheapish home computer, it would indeed have been impressive. Sadly it was not to be and frantic transatlantic phone calls between the journalist and MSX engineers failed to fix the problem. The rather lacklustre beginning was reflected in the newspaper and magazine reviews that followed and whilst it wasn’t entirely responsible for the format’s poor sales in Europe, it couldn’t have helped.

 

This particular MSX computer came to me via ebay, where there is usually a fairly decent assortment of software and some hardware and peripherals on offer. I paid only £10 for it as it was sold as non-working. As often happens, though, the fault was a fairly simple one and due to a dry soldered joint on the power supply board. It seems to have led a fairly easy life; there’s the odd scuff mark here and there but otherwise, for something that is more than 30 years old it is in pretty good shape. It still boots up and as soon as I can get hold of some software and a joystick I can find out if it still has all of its marbles.

 

What Happened To It?

MSX was moderately successful and not surprisingly it did very well in Japan and the Far East but it never achieved the critical mass needed for it to become an international standard. There were some surprising regional hot spots, though. Holland and Spain took to it in quite a big way, sales went well in several Arab countries, and it was popular in the Soviet Union and Cuba, thanks to export bans on US technology to Soviet bloc countries and allies. However, in the highly influential American and European markets, where demand for home computers was the greatest, it made little headway against machines coming from Apple, Atari, Commodore and Sinclair. The system battled on for five or six years, going through several generations, ending up with the release of MSX Turbo in 1990. But it wasn’t enough to ensure its survival as by then the IBM PC was the undisputed leader in the office market and starting to make big inroads into home computing. The video games market had also shifted away from computers to dedicated consoles, and ironically, it was Japanese companies, such as Nintendo Sega and Sony, who eventually came dominate video gaming throughout the nineties.      

 

A small band of enthusiasts keeps interest the MSX format alive and working computers, especially when they come with a good selection of software, games and peripherals can command quite eye-catching prices. Sadly, though, the lack of popularity means there is little nostalgia for the system, in fact I suspect that few who were not around at the time or outside of the industry will have even heard of it, so prices are unlikely to go the same way as other, better known vintage computers.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1983

Original Price                £250

Value Today                  £10 - £150, depending on condition and accessories  0314   

Features                        Zilog Z80A processor, 3.58MHz clock speed, 16KB BIOS, 32KB ROM, 64KB RAM, 16KB Video RAM, resolution 256 x 192 in 16 colours, (40 x 24 characters text mode), TMS9918 graphics processor, AY-3-8910 sound processor, Microsoft MSX Basic. Printer port , parallel expansion bus, cartridge slot, 2 x joystick ports, cassette port (8-pin DIN), composite video out, line audio out, RF out   

Power req.                     230VAC mains

Dimensions:                   370 x 245 x 60mm

Weight:                          2.4Kg

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


Speak & Spell Educational Toy, 1978

Words like revolutionary and iconic have become almost meaningless, but they actually mean something with the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell, and for good measure we’ll also add cutting-edge and innovative to the list, which is pretty good going for something that is basically a toy, albeit an educational one, but it is still a toy.

 

On the outside it looks like a big lump of red plastic but inside it is a late seventies technological marvel. At its heart is a custom designed voice synthesiser chip, almost certainly one of the first times such a thing was seen, or rather heard, on a consumer product, let alone a toy, but it also broke new ground in other areas, being one of the first handheld electronic games with a sophisticated visual display, and the facility to use interchangeable program cartridges.

 

How much influence it had in teaching young children to spell is hard to know, but there is no denying the wider impact that it had. When it first came out parents clamoured to buy them for their little treasures, and that was quite something for a pre-school toy costing the thick end of £50 -- equivalent to a couple of hundred pounds in today’s money. The games are very easy to play; the standard English language model has a library of 156 words, split into four lists ranked according to difficulty. The device speaks the word and the child has to spell it, entering letters on a tough membrane type keyboard. Each letter is spoken as it is keyed in, and displayed on a fancy (back then) alphanumeric vacuum fluorescent display (VFD). There was also a series of extra challenges, and its capacity, and extra activities could be added by the use of optional plug-in ROM cartridges.

 

However, Speak & Spell evolved far beyond the toy market and within a couple of years of its launch in 1978 it had been hacked and tweaked, to interface with the home computers of the day. The voice was mixed and sampled in numerous music tracks, and units heavily modified or ‘circuit bent’ to turn Speak & Spell into a musical instrument in its own right. It also featured prominently in several movies and TV shows, including, most famously, E. T. the Extra Terrestrial, Toy Story 1 and 2 and even horror flicks like Chucky and Poltergeist. 

 

Speech synthesis was already a fairly well established science by the 1970s but it was largely the province of relatively powerful computers, running sophisticated software. The engineers at Texas changed all that by squeezing the surprisingly complex business of synthesising intelligible human speech into the confines of a single microchip. Later and more sophisticated variants of these chips went on to create a fad for talking gadgets and appliances. Even cars, like the terrible Austin Montego, suddenly had a voice. Thankfully it didn’t last very long and the novelty soon wore off but voice synthesis matured into a useful technology, and has proved to be especially beneficial to the visually and vocally impaired. 

 

What Happened To It?

Speak & Spell underwent several revisions throughout the 80s and up until the early 90s and there were versions for teaching maths, music and learning to read. There were also improvements to the keyboard and display, LCDs replaced the VFDs, and the characteristic shape was changed several times. By the time the last Speak & Spells rolled of the production line, sometime in 1993, speech synthesis and talking toys had become old hat; educational video games and programs for home computers replaced them to some extent. Whilst it obviously had some value, it clearly didn’t result in a noticeable increase in child literacy and the task of teaching young children to spell and read reverted back to more traditional methods. Maybe one day someone will carry out a study to find out if it actually worked; my guess is the effect was marginal, though I have to say, since it disappeared spelling does seem to have become something of a lost art, but there are plenty of other things to blame that on.

 

Up until the early noughties old Speak & Spells were considered virtually worthless. Many were thrown away like so many other 70s and 80s toys and for several years you could pick them up at car boot sales for a few pence. In the last few years they have become quite collectible. Prices have shot up recently and good boxed specimens sell on ebay for upwards of £50 and most weeks there are one or two Buy It Now examples optimistically pitched at £70 or more. They are by no means rare though, and whilst many hundreds of thousands must have ended up in landfill there are still plenty of them around. Could it be that the generation that grew up with them are now reliving their childhood memories? Don’t be put off though; boot sale and charity shop bargains are still out there, like this one, which cost me a fiver. It had been fairly well used but it works and is in possession of all of its faculties. It is still fun to play with, for a few minutes at least, but you either had to have grown up in the 80’s, or be a gadget nut, to really appreciate them.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                      1978

Original Price                £40

Value Today                  £30 0114 

Features                        Texas Instruments TMC0271N2L voice synthesiser chip, 128kb ROM, vacuum fluorescent display, membrane keyboard, 50mm speaker, cartridge slot, external power & headphone jack, spelling 4-level word list dictionary, Mystery Word, Code Word & Say It games and activities 

Power req.                     4 x 1.5v C cell

Dimensions:                   250 x 175 x 34mm

Weight:                          500g

Made (assembled) in:    USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  5


Apple Macintosh SE, FDHD, 1987

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Apple products since the very earliest days. On the one hand I appreciate the clever design and (mostly) intuitive operation. On the other I dislike the high prices, the way owners and users are corralled and constrained by a tightly controlled ecosystem and Apple’s near fanatical obsession with its image. Nowadays the first thing I do with any new Apple product that comes my way is seek the quickest way to hack, crack or jailbreak the operating system, release its tenacious grip on my bank balance and patience, and make it do what I want it to do.

 

It wasn’t always that way; early desktop computers were often a joy to use, and there was little or no sense of Apple’s clammy fingers constantly dipping into your wallet. At one time or another I have used most Apple computers but the first one that I got to know really well was the Mac SE FDHD, which dates from 1987. Earlier models, like the Lisa, and Apple IIs and IIIs always felt a bit clunky and unfinished, and at the time didn’t really do the sort of things that many people wanted first generation computers to do, which was play games.

 

The SE defintiely wasn't a games machine; it was aimed at serious users but it was the first Apple PC to look like a proper grown up computer rather than a geeky construction kit with a rat’s nest of cables, and the start of Apple’s justly famous switch-it-on-and-it-works, point-and-click strategy. Sadly, though it was scarily expensive – around £5000 in today’s money – putting it squarely into the high end of the market. This wasn’t aimed a the home user and you generally only got your hands on one of them if you were a high flyer and it was provided by your employer, or as in my case, lucky enough to be sent early samples for review, though never for very long as Apple were pretty quick at taking their review models back.

 

So what made the SE special? Well, the all-in one construction with a built in (9-inch) monochrome monitor -- an idea pioneered on the Commodore PET several years earlier -- made it exceptionally easy to set up and use. Just connect the mouse and keyboard (this was one of the first outings for the ADB – Apple Desktop Bus simplified keyboard and mouse connection system); plug it into the mains and it was pretty much ready to go. It wasn’t exactly portable, and weighed in at a hefty seven and a half kilograms, but there is a built-in carry handle so it could be moved from one desk to another with relative ease. It had solid but unexciting Motorola 68000 processor running at 8MHz, 256kB of ROM and 1MB RAM (expandable to 4MB), a 20MB or 40MB hard drive and one or two 3.5-inch floppy drives. It ran on Mac OS 3 to 7, using the now familiar icon-based user interface. Modern PC and Mac users will feel immediately at home with and it set benchmarks for ease of use and reliability. One of the SE’s key features was an expansion slot – SE stands for System Expansion – and these could be used for various add-ons, like an accelerator card that would make it run significantly faster.

 

What Happened To It?

The SE was in production for just over three years between 1987 and 1990. Early models had two 800k floppy drives; the later FDHD variant had higher capacity 1.4Mb ‘High Density’ floppies or one HD floppy and a built in 20 or 40MB hard drive. It was a moderate success but the very high price put it well out of reach of the mass market and it was replaced by the significantly cheaper, though similar looking and specified Macintosh Classic in autumn 1990.

 

I have owned this one for more than 20 years; it came to me via a previous employer and was destined for the skip following an office-wide upgrade. I used it quite intensively for a couple of years in the early 90s but at that time faster and more interesting PCs were coming out of the woodwork and the SE was starting to look a bit dated so it went into retirement. Despite a few scuffs and scratches it still looks pretty good for its age and I was amazed to find that it booted up first time after having lain dormant in my loft for more than 10 years.

 

There are still a few die-hard SE users out there and a healthy collector’s market for vintage Macs but this model isn’t especially rare or interesting. The big money is reserved for very early models and special editions. Nevertheless, a Mac SE outfit in mint condition, preferably boxed, with software, and all of the accessories can fetch a few hundred pounds, and they’re unlikely to go down in value as they get older. If you remember the SE fondly and want an affordable nostalgia trip or fancy seeing how it was done in the olden days they’re not hard to come by. Prices for run of the mill examples and fixer uppers start at around £25.00 on ebay, and they are very heavy so don't forget to add another £20 or so for postage or shipping.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                         1989

Original Price                  $3900

Value Today                    £50 - £150 1013

Features                          225mm (9-inch) mono CRT display, Motorola 68000/8MHz CPU, 256kB ROM, 1MB RAM, 20MB hard drive. 3.5-inch floppy drive

Power req.                    100 - 240VAC 50/60Hz

Dimensions:                   340 x 270 x 245mm

Weight:                          7.8kg

Made (assembled) in:    Ireland

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


Sony DD-8 Data Discman, 1992

Here’s another one of those nothing-new-under-the-sun gadgets from the early 90’s. It’s the Sony DD-8 Data Discman Electronic Book Player, launched a full 15 years before the Amazon Kindle, which sparked off the current e-book revolution. Needless to say it didn’t take off but it was well ahead of its time. The problem was the market and the technology simply wasn’t ready, but it’s interesting to see how far-sighted Sony had been and how much it got right.

 

As far as the hardware is concerned the two key differences between then and now are the display and the storage systems. Today’s e-readers mostly use book-sized e-ink screens, which produce a crisp, rock-steady image. These consume very little power, resulting in running times of several weeks in some cases. E-books are stored on solid-state memory chips, and again these consume very little power. (Incidentally colour e-ink displays are on the way, one or two models use colour LCD screens and most tablet computers can also display e-books). The DD-8, sports a relatively small 100mm (4-inch) LCD, which is not in itself especially power hungry but it's nowhere near as easy to read as an e-ink display. The software or e-books are stored on 8cm CD-ROMs, housed in a protective caddy, and unlike microchip memory, the drive is full of battery sapping motors and lasers. In spite of this Sony managed to cram everything into a package that’s not much larger than a fat paperback, though with a full set of batteries on board it’s not especially comfortable to hold for long periods.

 

In spite of the differences in many respects Sony created the template for today’s e-book readers. The built in QWERTY keyboard is a common feature, and then, as now, it can be used for entering text, searching menus and books for words and graphics. It can create bookmarks and you can scroll backwards and forwards through a book using the page turn and chapter skip keys (though, to be fair most e-books nowadays have touch screens). It also has one more trick up its sleeve that only a few very recent tablet-based e-readers can match and that’s an audio and video output, so it you can listen to audio content through headphones and display text and images on a TV screen. 

    

The DD-8 shown has been residing in my loft for the past decade or more and is an early production sample that I reviewed a couple of months before the UK launch. In addition to a supplied disc featuring a 5-language pocket translator it came with a small selection of early demo e-books, including The Electronic Time Out London Guide, Golf Guide to Europe and Hutchinson Gallup Info, (sub titled ‘Facts Figures and Trends in Today’s World’). Hardly gripping stuff and looking back it was probably a sign that the format was doomed. The list of available titles did expand but with Sony’s involvement in book publishing at the time being fairly minimal it was probably always going to be confined to specially written non-fiction and reference books. Sadly the LCD on this DD-8 is now blank, hopefully it’s just a simple cable fault, but it still functions through the external video output  

 

What Happened To It?

I can’t be sure how long the DD-8 was in production but my guess is that it wouldn’t have been for more than four or five years, if that. It was quite expensive to begin with – around £400 - £500 as I recall, with books costing £15 – 20, which would have been quite off-putting. At the time you would have been limited to whatever was available from Sony’s Publishing division, though I have come across at least one DIY authoring package, but this wouldn’t be the sort of thing the average user would have been interested in.

 

The e-book reader, as we know it today owes it existence to the development of cheap e-ink displays, and to a lesser extent, low cost microchip memory, but the real impetus came from the Internet, which made it easy for companies like Amazon to simplify the sale and distribution of e-books.

 

There is no doubt that Data Discman was an important milestone in the history of e-books and electronic publishing, which makes it an interesting collectible for gadget nuts like me, but even though it is comparatively rare it is unlikely ever to be much of an investment, at least not in the short term and not without a good assortment of those elusive e-books.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                       1992

Original Price                £400

Value Today                  £25? 0213

Features                        Electronic book reader, 100mm (4-inch) black and white LCD screen, qwerty keyboard, AV out (PAL & NTSC video), EBXA electronic book standard, front-loading disc mechanism, 

Power req.                     4 x AA cell, mains adaptor supplied

Dimensions:                   178 x 110 x 40mm

Weight:                          400g

Made in:                        Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  8


Atari 600XL Home Computer, 1983

This heroic little computer deserves a medal! Between 1983 when I bought it and 1985 or thereabouts when it was retired, I conservatively estimate that I bashed out more than a million words on the keyboard, and it still works!

 

The Atari 600XL was my first proper work processor. In common with most journalists working for small publishers in the 70s and early 80s I wrote using a typewriter. At the time word processors were mostly confined to larger operations running networks and mainframe computers. There were a few WPs for early PCs and home computers but they were generally slower and harder to use than a typewriter and usually unreliable or horribly expensive.

 

I first came across the 600XL at a trade show launch but it was just one of many home computers coming onto the market so it didn’t arouse too much interest. It was smart looking, worked well as a games machine and it ran Atari BASIC, so you could dabble with programming, but I though little more of it until a review sample arrived in the office a few weeks later.

 

It came with an AtariWriter word processor cartridge and matching dot-matrix printer and it was a revelation. I had used plenty of word processors and found them to be mostly more trouble than they were worth, with steep learning curves and scores of convoluted commands to remember but suddenly, with this one, it all started to make sense. AtariWriter was pretty basic by current standards but it had many of the features we now take for granted, and it was just so easy to use. That, coupled with the comparatively low cost, convinced me that it was finally time to ditch the typewriter. By the time the review machine was recalled I was hooked since I was doing a lot of freelance work from home I immediately blew several weeks wages on one, along with an Atari printer and data cassette drive.

 

Word-processing aside the 600XL was a great design and one of the few home computers to successfully bridge the gap between games consoles and PCs. The 8-bit processor coupled with 16kb of RAM and 24kB of ROM meant that it chugged along at a decent rate. It certainly wasn’t the fastest machine around but it did have good colour graphics and better than average sound. However, it was the Atari tie-in that made it stand out. Even if you weren’t particularly interested in computing there were plenty of top-name games available, courtesy of the VCS system, and it had a pair of standard joystick sockets plus parallel and peripheral expansion ports. It was fully self-contained, apart from the external mains power supply, and there was no messing about, just pop in a cart and plug it into the TV or a monitor and it was good to go. Best of all it had a proper keyboard, which made writing and programming almost a pleasure, especially if you were used to the dreadful keyboards fitted to most other home computers of the day. It was solidly built too and didn’t feel as though it would fall apart if it fell on the floor (which it did, several times...) 

 

What Happened To It?

In spite of everything the 600XL and its more sophisticated stablemate the 800XL were not tremendously successful and they were in production for only a couple of years. It was replaced by another 8-bit model range, the 65 and 130XE in 1985. Later that year Atari introduced the ground breaking 520ST, a very well specified 16-bit machine that quickly became popular with musicians, as it was one of the first PCs to come with built-in MIDI port. For a while the ST was a market leader and a serious rival to machines coming from the likes of Apple but Atari had lost their edge. Even though they jumped aboard the PC bandwagon the glory days were over and by the early 1990s, and in spite of a succession of new models, it had fallen into a steady decline.

 

This 600XL has been gathering dust in my loft for the best part of 20 years and it still works, though not surprisingly some of the keys are a bit dodgy. Judging by the number of 600 and 800XLs on ebay it appears that not too many survived, compared with the abundant supply of Amiga, Commodore and Sinclair machines of the same vintage, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s particularly valuable. Nevertheless, it still has a loyal following and good examples, especially if they come with dedicated peripherals can still fetch a few bob, so if you have one, hang on to it, and if you see one in good condition at your local car boot sale, it has to be worth making an offer.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1983

Original Price                   £150

Value Today?                   £25 0912

Features:                          1.79MHz 8-bit 6050C processor, 16kb RAM, 24kb ROM, 320 x 192 pixels, 256 colours/16 levels, composite video monitor output, UHF RF output, cartridge slot, peripheral port (SIO), parallel bus (PBI), 2 joystick sockets, built-in Atari BASIC,

Power req.                       External mains adaptor

Weight:                            1.7kg

Dimensions:                     375 x 170 x 65mm

Made in:                           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


Commodore 64 Personal Computer, 1982

An estimated 16 million C64 computers were sold between it’s launch in early 1982 and its eventual demise in the early 90s making it the best selling personal computer of all time. Generations of kids and teenagers grew up with this machine and it’s not hard to see why. By the time the plug was pulled there were more than 10,000 commercial programs, from games to office applications, and probably ten times as many programs written by enthusiastic users.

 

However, one of the reasons this machine was so successful was the way it was sold. It was one of the first computers to break free of the geeky computer market and sell in high-street shops. This made it appear a lot less threatening, and although it was never particularly cheap, it was squarely aimed at Joe Public and in particular video gamers.

 

Back in 1982 there was no shortage of competition so the C64 had a fight on its hands but many machines at that time were poorly supported with software, or involved a very steep learning curve. That’s wasn’t a problem with the C64, it came with everything needed to get it up and running, apart from a TV set, and even the most computer illiterate could hope to have it doing something inside half an hour. It also helped that it had a reasonably fast processor, a fair amount of on-board memory and most important of all, decent colour graphics and sound. For those who wanted to go beyond pre-packaged entertainment on cartridges and cassette tape there was plenty of opportunity to get your hands dirty and create your own programs, using the by now standard BASIC language. As time went by there was also a good selection of peripherals, including floppy drives and printers.

 

What Happened To It?

In spite of its popularity the C64 eventually suffered the same fate as the other games-oriented home computers of the time. The all-powerful IBM PC ate up their market share. The C64 lasted longer than most as first generation PCs were essentially office machines, but slowly, as the PC acquired sound, better graphics a more user-friendly interface and lower prices, it simply couldn’t compete and production finally stopped in March 1994 and a few months later Commodore filed for bankruptcy.

 

Most home computers from the 1980s – and there were hundred of models -- have disappeared without trace but the C64 never really went away, thanks the vast numbers that were sold and thousands of devoted fans around the world. Uniquely amongst that generation of computers it is now making a comeback. The appetite for retro technology has prompted a new company called Commodore USA to develop a Windows based PC, housed in a replica of the C64 case. And to keep the flag flying it comes with a software emulator program that runs old C64 programs. Original C64s are still plentiful and cheap though boxed examples in pristine condition will always command a premium. This one was found at a car boot sale and came with the power supply and tape deck, housed in a custom carry case, all for just £15.00 so if you cut your computing teeth on one of these machines there’s no excuse not to indulge yourself.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1983

Original Price                   £399

Value Today?                   £25 0712

Features:                          8-bit 6510 processor. 0.9MHz, 64k RAM, 8k on-board ROM, 16 colours, graphics: 20x200 (2 colours per 8x8 block), 160x200 (3 colours + background per block), 40x25 text mode, 80x25, 3 sound channels, 8 octaves, 4 waveforms, 2 x Joystick, Power, Cartridge, RF, A/V, IEEE-488  Floppy/Printer, Digital tape interfac, RS-232

Power req.                        9-volt mains adaptor

Weight:                             1.85kg

Dimensions:                     400 x 205 x 75mm

Made in:                           West Germany

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     3


Grandstand SD070 Video Sports Centre, 1980

History doesn’t record how much influence Endorsed by Kevin Keegan had on sales of the Grandstand SD070 video game, but the footballer with his famous perm was certainly a big draw back in the late 70s and 80s. Back then, as now, celebrity endorsements were much sought after and getting his face and signature on the box must have costs the company a pretty penny.

 

Unfortunately the game was nothing special, it was just one of many ‘Pong’ type bat and paddle colour video games that were flooding the market at the time. They were all based on the same General Instruments chipsets, which had the potential to play many more games, using plug-in ROM cartridges. For youngsters and those unable to afford the much more versatile Atari VCS system it was a way to join in the fun of playing simple games on the family telly. All you had to do was pop in half a dozen C cells or plug in a 9 volt mains adaptor, connect the aerial lead to the back of the TV, tune it in to UHF channel 36 and away you went. 

 

The box promised 10 games on the supplied cartridge but it took a great deal of imagination on the part of players to see much difference between hockey, tennis, soccer and basketball. Moreover 4 of the 10 games were essentially just single player versions of other games. Extra game carts were produced and there was a half-hearted attempt to create a sort of standard, but it never took off, at least not in the UK, in spite of at least half a dozen other games consoles using the same PC-50x cartridge.

 

What Happened To It?

The SD70 and its ilk reputedly sold quite well for two or three years but anyone who owned one soon tired of the very limited repertoire and would have hankered after something a bit more sophisticated. Even those who stuck with it were often disappointed, as build quality wasn’t that great. The joysticks were particularly tacky. After few hours vigorous gameplay the return springs would fail and the potentiometers, which registered stick movement, usually became noisy, resulting in jerky and erratic paddle action. Not even Kevin Keegan could save second generation video games like this one and by the mid 80s video gamers had either moved on to proper programmable systems, or were trying their hands at home computers, from the likes of Sinclair, Commodore and Tandy.

 

This Grandstand came from a south coast flea market and was more or less complete, with its original (rather tatty) box and poly packing. As far as I can see the only thing that was missing were the instructions. It was marked up at £10, but the owner was probably having a bad day and readily accepted an offer of a fiver, which was about right as they couldn’t’ confirm if it worked or not. As it happened it did, though one of the controllers was knackered (noisy pots) and there was a problem with the UHF modulator, resulting in a poor quality and difficult to tune picture. It was a simple fix, though, and after removing the top of the modulator a quick prod of the tuning coils with a screwdriver bought it back into line. As with most video games of this era, most of them were eventually thrown away, but a lot of them were made so they are not exactly rare. Nevertheless, good clean examples in their boxes with always be attractive to collectors but don’t expect them to contribute much to your retirement fund.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1980

Original Price                   £49.99

Value Today?                   £5.00 0512

Features:                          Cartridge programmable (PC-50x type), 10 game cart & 2 joystick controllers included, variable speed & volume, auto/manual serve, UHF PAL output (Ch 36)

Power req.                        6 x C cells or 9v mains adaptor

Weight:                             1.1kg (ex controllers)

Dimensions:                      260 x 160 x 75mm

Made in:                            Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     4


Commodore PET 2001-N Computer, 1978

My first encounter with the Commodore PET was in 1978, early in my journalistic career, whilst working on Computing Today, one of the UKs first computer magazines. We had been sent an early sample for review, prior to its UK launch. Suffice it to say I and my fellow journos didn’t go home for a couple of days after that, vying with one another to play the one and only game we had for the machine, Space Invaders...

 

The PET or Personal Electronic Transactor certainly wasn’t the first or even the most sophisticated personal computer of its day but it is a true classic. The features that made it stand out was the futuristic casework – it looked like something from the set of Star Trek – the built-in 9-inch monitor, and the fact that it worked, and could do something useful right out of the box.

 

The model we had back then was the mark 1 version with a horrible calculator style or ‘chicklet’ keyboard. It was a real pain to use and keying in long programs by hand was a nightmare. It was easy to program, though, using a version of the BASIC language allegedly written by a young fellow called Bill Gates – now whatever happened to him? 

 

That model came with a built-in cassette deck, which made loading programs a lot easier. This one, the 2001-N was launched soon afterwards (N stood for ‘normal’), in response to complaints about the keyboard, and with an eye on the business market. (The 2001-B ‘business’ variant had fewer graphic symbols on the keys). The proper keyboard meant there was no room for the cassette deck, so it was fitted with a dedicated I/O port for a tape deck on the back; there were also connectors for a wide range of peripherals, including 5.25-inch floppy drives, printers and so on. The 2001-N could also handle more memory, increased from the standard 4Kb RAM of the mark 1 to a massive 32Kb; for the rest of the specs see below, but you can take it as read that it was all cutting edge stuff.

 

What Happened To It?

The PET was an instant best seller and in its relatively short life it went through many revisions and updates. These included faster processors, better graphics, larger memory, bigger screen, swivel screen, detachable keyboard and dedicated business and education models but eventually it ran out of steam. Sales started to fall off quite quickly and the last PETs rolled off the line in 1983. Its demise coincided with the growth of cheaper and more sophisticated home computers with better graphics, the games machines that were starting to appear, and the vast explosion of more serious office computers, out of which the IBM PC would eventually emerge and reign supreme.

 

I have been after a PET for some time and they do come up on ebay from time to time but working models in good condition are quite rare and fetch upwards of £150, and I didn’t want one that much. This particular model was on ebay, it was billed as a non-runner but they can still fetch £50 to £75.  It must have been a quiet day and I snagged it for a very reasonable £35. Fortunately the seller was local, so I didn’t have to pay shipping charges -- these things weigh a ton...

 

All things considered it’s in pretty good shape and it seems to have led a quite eventful life.  It has been modded at some time with an unofficial memory upgrade. Commodore drilled holes through the PCB where the extra memory chips would be mounted to stop them being 

added.

 

It powers up okay but the screen is filled with garbage. I’ve checked around and it seems like a fairly common problem and it could be something as simple as a dud RAM chip. Luckily PETs are really easy to work on and the top lifts up like a car bonnet giving ready access to the main printed circuit board inside. I really want to get it going and have another crack at Space Invaders, and I will, but it’s going to have to wait its turn in the queue, unless someone out there has a working mainboard they want to sell...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1977

Original Price                   £800

Value Today?                   £50 - 150 0212

Features:                          Commodore Basic 1.0,  73 key  keyboard with a numeric keypad, CPU: 6502, 1MHz, 4 – 32Kb RAM, 1Kb VRAM, 14Kb ROM, 9-inch CRT display 40 x 25 characters monochrome (green), I/O Ports: IEEE 488, Parallel port, second user port for 8-bit I/O, cassette port

Power req.                       220 volts AC

Weight:                            44.5 x 48 x 42cm

Dimensions:                     11.3kg

Made in:                           USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     4


Mattel Intellivision Video Game Console, 1979

The video game market of the early 1980s was a turbulent place with lots of comings and goings, mostly goings in fact. Nevertheless, there were some success stories and the one that everyone remembers was the all-conquering Atari VCS, which sold more than 30 million units over its 13-year reign. It never had any really serious competition, but one video games console did look like it could become a contender, and that was the marvellous Mattel Intellivision. It was the Rolls Royce of video games, by most measures vastly superior to the VCS, and one of its main selling points was the promise of a keyboard adaptor that would turn it into a fully-fledged home computer. Sadly it was never launched, at least not officially, and in the end only 5 million consoles were sold by the time the plug was pulled in 1984. At its peak there were around 125 games available. That’s nowhere near as many as the VCS but it was enough to keep most users amused, even though the line-up lacked big hitters like Pac Man, which were exclusive to Atari.

 

In addition to a faster, more powerful 16-bit processor, more memory, better graphics and sound, one of the main attractions of the Intellivision, over its rival, were the two hard-wired control pads with their innovative direction discs (an inspiration for the Apple iPod wheel maybe?). These looked and worked a lot better than the clunky Atari joystick. It was prettier too, though the US designers couldn’t resist cladding it in the almost obligatory mockwood trim. Power came from the mains and it plugged straight into the TV’s aerial socket. Pop in a game cart and you were away; you never needed to go anywhere near the instruction book.

 

When the first review samples arrived at the Electronics Today International magazine offices where I was working everything ground to a halt (looking back I’m surprised we ever got any work done…). There was much pulling of rank to see who would get to take it home. Eventually my turn came and I was blown away by games like B17, Bowling and Sub Hunt, not to mention a very respectable chess program, so much detail, and colour, and the sound was fantastic. 

 

What Happened To It?

Things started to go wrong for Mattel in 1983. The games console market had become saturated, the first stirrings of the home computer were beginning to be felt and the company had been overreaching itself in the belief that the good times would go on forever. But the final nail in the coffin, for Intellivision at least, was the failure to deliver the promised keyboard component home computer upgrade. It was supposed to have been launched in 1981 but it was put back, one of several delays, until Spring 82. By the Autumn Mattel admitted defeat and cancelled the project, much to everyone’s dismay and annoyance. It turned out there were reliability problems and big questions over the cost. A few thousand were built but they were recalled and the few that escaped are now worth a small fortune.

 

My Intellivision was found on ebay and cost £20. It came without a box or games but it was sold as a runner and that proved to be the case. There are plenty of games on ebay; prices start at around £10 so it’s a good practical collectable that can only gain in value as the years pass. Even after all this time the games are still very playable, but don’t expect anyone under 30 to be impressed.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1979

Original Price                   £199

Value Today?                   £25 1111

Features:                          GI CP1610 16-bit CPU, 2kb RAM, 8kb ROM, 16-colours, 160 x 196 pixel resolution, 3-channel sound, two hard-wired controllers (12 button numeric keypad, 4 Action keys & direction disc), cartridge programmable (over 125 released)

Power req.                       220 volt mains

Weight:                             2.1kg

Dimensions:                     380 x 230 x 65mm

Made in:                           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     3  


Atari 2600 VCS Video Games Console, 1977

The Atari VCS wasn’t the first programmable video game system, but it was without question the most successful, with over 30 million of them being sold throughout its 13-year life. It’s the granddaddy of all of video games and although now horribly dated by today’s standards, many of the games are still great fun to play, and highly addictive.

 

The VCS or Video Computer System evolved from a game system called Stella, developed by Semiconductor manufacturers Fairchild in the mid 1970s. In 1976 Atari, then owned by Warner Communications, took over the design and the first models went on sale in the US in autumn 1977, reaching the UK several months later.

 

I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the very first UK test samples for review in Electronics Today International and to say it was an instant hit with everyone who saw it would be a gross understatement! As I recall all work in the ETI editorial offices came to an abrupt halt for three straight days, before the boss decided it was time to get back to work (and then only because he pulled rank and took it home…)

 

Despite Atari’s best attempts to control the game software many third-party companies got in on the act, producing cartridges. Many of these games were complete rubbish, but some companies, like Activision came up with some real classics, increasing the game system’s popularity.

 

It’s a near perfect design, there’s no need to read the instructions, just slap in a cartridge, flip the reset switch, waggle the joystick and stab the fire button. Everything about the VCS was right, from the cheesy mock-wood finish to the virtually indestructible joysticks and paddle controllers, I can’t remember ever breaking one, in spite of some fierce abuse.

 

What Happened To It?

The VCS wet through several design changes and continued in production until 1990, but by that time its blocky graphics had become seriously outdated and the market had shifted to faster and more sophisticated machines. However, the dedicated games console was in decline by the late 1980s and struggling against the more versatile personal computer, but what goes around comes around. By the mid nineties the games console was on the rise again, thanks to the success of products like the Sony PlayStation

 

This VCS is a 1981 vintage model, according to a date label inside, and one of the last of the first generation machines as it has the difficulty switches on the front (they moved around the back on later models). I picked it up at a local car boot sale for £12.00. It was a bit of a punt as the chap selling it couldn’t say if it was working or not but since it looked in good condition and came with two joysticks, paddle controllers, power supply, half a dozen games and the original cardboard box I though it was worth a gamble.

 

As it turned out it did have a fault, the solder joints on the on/off switch were intermittent and took all of five minutes to fix, but apart from that it was in perfect working order, and a real bargain. They’re not exactly rare but you can pay £40 to £50 for a pristine example on ebay, so boot sale finds like this one are not that common. The only trouble is once you have one you want more games, so it could turn into an expensive hobby…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1977

Original Price                   £150

Value Today?                   £30 1111

Features:                          ROM cartridge programmable, 1 or 2 players, 2 difficulty levels, joystick and paddle controllers (optional trackball and steering wheels controllers), UHF aerial output

Power req.                        9-volt mains adaptor

Weight:                             1.7kg

Dimensions:                     350 x 230 x 90mm

Made in:                           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     4


Sinclair ZX 81 Home Computer, 1981

No website concerned with vintage technology would be complete without a Sinclair computer.  I thought long and hard about which one to feature and as you know there were several highly influential models. It all began with the pioneering ZX80 and of course who can forget the massively popular Spectrum. There were others, including the Sinclair designed Cambridge Z88, and the sadly forgotten QL, but in my opinion the one that actually made a difference was the ZX81.

 

Launched in 1981 it was the successor to the ZX80. It sold as a kit for a fairly affordable £49.95, or you could buy one ready assembled – always a good idea with Sinclair stuff – for £70. For that you got a Zilog 80 based machine running at 3.25Mz, 32 x 24 graphic display and with 1 kilobyte of RAM as standard, expandable to 56kb. It’s easy to mock but unless you were there and this was your first real computer, you would be genuinely surprised how much you can do with such a small amount of memory. Anyway, like the ZX80 it was housed in a compact case, not much larger than a paperback book, with a membrane keyboard that users quickly grew to hate. Every key had at least four functions and toggling between them called for a considerable amount of physical and mental dexterity, especially when it came to manually entering lines of BASIC, but for those who enjoyed a challenge it was a real learning experience. It’s no exaggeration to say this little machine helped create a generation of talented programmers.

 

There’s no need for to go into details about the machine’s capabilities, much has been written about this little computer and its strange and funny ways, suffice it to say that most owners used it to play games, and that was the key to its success, there were hundreds, if not thousands to choose from. What’s more almost anyone determined to put in a few hours and master the intricacies of Sinclair BASIC could write their own games or simple applications, I even managed to run off a few myself, a couple of which I was really proud of, but that’s a story for another day.

 

It was very easy to set up. It came with a mains adaptor and the built-in RF modulator meant it could connect to the aerial socket of any TV. If you wanted to load or store a program, all you needed was simple cassette recorder. There was even a printer, a dreadful design that used sparks to burn marks on silver aluminised paper; as I recall they cost a fortune to run and lasted about five minutes…

 

What Happened to It?

More than one and half million ZX80s were sold in the UK making it the most popular home computer of its time.  It sold well in the US too, where Timex, who made the UK model, had its own production plant. There were also a number of clones and copies but its popularity was relatively short lived. These were frantic times and Sinclair, like everyone else in the computer business was desperate to stay ahead of the game. And so in 1982, barely a year after the appearance of the ZX81 Sinclair launched the ZX Spectrum with its faster processor, bigger memory, colour graphics and almost useable keyboard. It was an instant hit and sales of the ZX81 rapidly fell off.

 

I honestly can’t remember where this ZX81 came from. Back in the day I had several that over time either stopped working, or I gave away. I’m fairly sure this was one of the earliest ones and it’s a bog-standard 1kb model, nothing special, apart from the fact that it still works. I fired it up recently, probably for the first time in more than 10 years and was astonished at how much Sinclair BASIC I remembered and how enjoyable it was to write simple programs. It also reminded me of how many hours I wasted entering code from magazine listings for buggy programs that never worked.

 

Boxed, working ZX80s are quite rare and you are unlikely to find one for under £100; later Spectrums are plentiful and you shouldn’t have to pay more for than £5 - £10 for one at the moment. The ZX81 sits somewhere in the middle and it’s my top tip for a future collectable. Prices are still relatively low; you’ll often see them on ebay, in junk shops and at car boot sales selling for under £20, but probably not for much longer. If you want one go for a pristine example, preferably boxed with a full set of manuals and it’s worth getting hold of any accessories you come across as they are becoming increasingly scarce.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1981

Original Price                   £50 (kit), £70 (assembled)

Value Today?                   £15 - £30 1011

Features:                          Z80A Microprocessor 3.25MHz, 1K RAM, expandable to 16K, 32K or 56K, 8K ROM containing BASIC, 32x24 text, 64x48 graphics

Power req.                        9VDC (external mains adaptor)

Weight:                             345g

Dimensions:                      170 x 165 x 44mm

Made in:                            UK

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     4


Vectrex Video Game System, 1982

Scores of video game systems came and went during the 1980s but only a handful left any lasting impression. The two obvious ones are the Atari VCS and Mattel Intellivision. The only other one that stuck in my memory was the Vectrex and for me it will always be associated with France and cheap apple brandy. Allow me to elaborate. I had been given an early sample of the Vectrex to review for Electronics Today International and I was immediately hooked, so much so that I took it on a motoring holiday to Normandy, along with my unamused partner and a group of friends. The week was spent touring the sights by day and consuming vast quantities of Calvados and fighting over control of the Vectrex at night, and well into the early hours.

 

The big things about Vectrex are the vector graphics, and the built-in screen, which made it really easy to cart around. Vector graphics give the games a very crisp but boxy look; similar to the best arcade games of the day. Images are drawn on the screen by a moving spot, rather than built up in lines, so they tend to be quite basic and in black and white, but it didn’t matter as the games were superbly well designed and highly addictive. Game are stored on plug-in cartridges, and most come with a coloured overlay that clips to the front of the screen, giving an impression of colour. The console has a built-in game, called Minestorm, but the best one was a tank shoot-em-up called Armour Attack. Vectrex was also one of the first video games with a colour 3D facility – called 3D Imager -- predating today’s spectacle-based 3D TV systems by several decades.

 

What Happened To It?

Sadly Vectrex was a failure. It was late into the game – by then Atari and Mattel had cleaned up, and the first generation of home PCs were starting to take off. It was also quite expensive, at launch costing around £350 in today’s money, though within a year it had been drastically reduced to try and stimulate sales, but it was not to be.

 

Good quality examples, with a few games can easily fetch £150 or more but I found this particular example on ebay for a very reasonable £25. It was sold as a fixer-upper, for spares or repairs, but it turned out to be a runner and the only thing missing was the controller. They do turn up from time to time but it’s not a huge problem as it’s fairly easy to modify a standard Playstation controller. There’s usually a few games on ebay, typically selling for £10 - £20 – depending whether or not they come with an intact screen overlay, but I suspect that console and games prices will go up, so grab one whilst there’s still a few bargains to be had.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1982

Original Price                   £200

Value Today?                   £50 0811

Features:                          8-bit Motorola 68A09 processor. 1.5MHz, 1kb RAM, 8kb ROM, 230mm screen (diagonal), built in 3-inch speaker 2 x controller ports (D-Sub), cartridke slot

Power req.                        220 volts AC mains

Weight:                             5.5kg

Dimensions:                      370 x 290 x 240mm

Made in:                           Taiwan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     7


Oric Atmos Home Computer, 1984

Back in the early 1980s I worked on one of the UK’s first computer magazines (Computing Today). I clearly recall the late night and overnight sessions in the office when exciting new models came in for review. I don’t think anyone went home for two days when the Commodore PET appeared.

 

It was a mad time and new computers were coming out of the woodwork; during peak times there could be two or three new models a week. Inevitably most of them disappeared without trace, usually after a year or so, deservedly so in many cases. Far too many of those early machines were launched in haste; they were often buggy, poorly made, lacked software support or were just another dull me-too product. A few – very few – deserved better and in my opinion one of the models that should have gone on to bigger and better things was the Oric Atmos. It looked like a professional product, made in a factory and not someone’s garden shed; it had a proper keyboard, proper connection to the outside world, a whopping 64k of RAM (there was also a 16k model but it was next to useless), decent sound that included several built-in effects, and the price was quite reasonable.

 

What Happened to it?

No prizes for guessing, there were a fair few games for the Atmos but nothing on the scale of the ones being written for the likes of Spectrum, Atari and Commodore machines. Back then games were all that mattered, and although some for the Atmos were very good, in general they weren’t the slick and hugely popular headline grabbers that made the other machines so successful. One of the reasons I liked the Atmos so much was the keyboard and the fact that it could be so easily coupled up to a printer and disc drive. There was even a couple of half-decent word processors. Sadly this was not enough to sustain the machine and the makers, Oric International, went into receivership in 1985.

 

My Atmos was an early review sample; for a few months it had a fair bit of use but something newer and shinier must have come alone, it was put back into its box and has remained in my loft ever since. My guess is it still works but for some reason the power supply has disappeared, along with a small collection of program cassettes. This neatly illustrates one of the majpor pitfalls of collecting old PCs; they really need to work and you must have a supply of software to make it worthwhile. Nevertheless, it’s an undeveloped market, especially for more obscure models like this, which can often be found very cheaply, but more than anything else, they are a little bit of history and played a very important part in the development of the personal computer; who knows, one day they could become quite valuable…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1984

Original Price                   £170

Value Today?                   £25 0611

Features:                          6502A processor, 48k RAM, 16k ROM, 200 x 240 pixel display (text 28 line/40 characters), 8 foreground  & 8 background colours, QWERTY keyboard, TV/UHF display output, cassette interface, printer, Expansion & RGB ports, sound: 15Hz - 62 KHz (7 Octaves) 3 channels + 4 sound effects (explode, ping, shoot, zap)

Power req.                       7 volt DC  (supplied mains adaptor)

Weight:                            0.8kg

Dimensions:                     280 x 180 x 55 mm

Made in:                          UK

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    6


Psion Organiser II XP, 1986

It hardly seems possible that the Psion Organiser is now almost a quarter of a century old, and it is difficult to overstate just how important a milestone it was in the development of personal computers. This is literally where it all began, for generations of pocket computers, PDAs, organisers and smartphones.

 

By current standards it’s laughably crude, the Pison II was based on an 8-bit Hitachi processor running at just 0.9MHz. It came with 32kB of ROM and a choice of 8, 16, 32 or 64k RAM and featured a simple 2-line LCD display, yet this small box of tricks with its calculator type keyboard was nothing short of revolutionary. Today’s programmers would be amazed at how many functions were squeezed into such a modest device.

 

It came with a built-in alarm clock, calendar, calculator and databank, but the killer feature was OPL or the Organiser Programming Language, which meant anyone with a modicum of programming skills, could develop applications for it; there was even a simple word processor. Two slots on the back were for expansion ROM/PROM cartridges or Datapaks and there’s a RS232 port on the top, which could be used to connect the Psion II to a host of external devices, from printers and telephone diallers to barcode scanners. The latter made it particularly popular with business users, for stock control and so on and Marks and Spencer were early and enthusiastic users.

 

What Happened to it?

Quite simply it evolved, the Psion II was always a bit specialist and it’s appeal was a bit limited for the average Joe, if only because it was so groundbreaking, but the big breakthrough came in 1989 with the launch of the MC400, followed by the Series 3 and 5 models, which look like proper pocket computers, complete with larger screens and QWERTY type keyboards.

 

This one costs me just £12 and I found it gathering dust in the corner of Brighton Junk shop, complete with a full set of manuals. It's in great condition and it works too, and the LCD screen would put some of today’s notebooks to shame for legibility, especially in bright sunlight. There’s still a few enthusiasts out there using them, and plenty of links on the web for downloading software, applications and even a few games, so unlike many early computers this one can still be used, and it’s a guaranteed scene-stealer in the office or down the pub, the next time some smart Alec hikes out their latest shiny smartphone.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1986

Original Price                   £139

Value Today?                   £10-20 0311

Features:                          2-line 6cm LCD screen, 16k RAM, 2 memory cartridge slots, slide cover, diary, alarm clock, data bank, calculator, RS232 port,

Power req.                        9V PP£ battery

Weight:                             300g

Dimensions:                      78 x 145 x 30mm (whd)

Made in:                           UK

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


Bandai Breakout Solar LCD Game, 1982

These days’ solar powered gadgets are everywhere but back in the early 1980s they were definitely something of a novelty. Although I have no way to verify this, I believe that Bandai Breakout may have been the first, but if not, it was certainly one of the very first solar-powered hand-held electronic games. In the scheme of things it’s probably not much of a milestone. Nor did it and its ilk save any of the world’s energy resources – quite the opposite in fact.  Even today few solar cells ever generate more energy than was consumed in their manufacture, but it was an interesting harbinger of things to come.

 

It’s a clamshell design with the solar cell on the inside of the lid and the 35mm wide monochrome LCD screen on the lower part. There are five controls, Right and Left player controls, buttons for game speed and start and a sound on/off switch.


The actual game is quite rudimentary and incidentally, has nothing at all to do with the wall-busting game of the same name. The breakout in question is from prison, you have three lives, it’s against the clock and the idea is you are a criminal trying to escape from a prison cell by avoiding being seen by a patrolling guard. Once free of the cell you have to dodge the guard dogs and a prison warder taking pot-shots at you, then make good your escape in a waiting van. It sounds a lot more interesting than it is. The graphics are rather crude, essentially static images that pop up in sequence on the LCD screen. It’s enough to keep you amused for about five minutes, until you figure out how to beat it, or the sun goes in.

 

What Happened To It?

This was one of a number of pocket-sized solar powered LCD games from Bandai. Others included Raiders of the Mummy’s Tomb, Sub Attack, Shark Island and Escape from Devil’s Doom, though I’m fairly sure only Breakout made to the UK. Credit where it is due and Nintendo was the pioneers of the hand-held LCD game and it’s groundbreaking Game & Watch Series first appeared two years earlier in 1980. Bandai, Nintendo and others all had a pretty good run but by the late 80s the hand-held game market went through a seismic shift following the launch of the Nintendo Gameboy. This revolutionary cartridge programmable system killed the single dedicated game stone dead and they disappeared – mostly into dustbins I suspect -- virtually overnight.

 

This particular game is the last survivor of a number of hand-held games that I hung on to after reviewing them for a long forgotten magazine Gadgets and Games, which I edited back in 1982. It is in surprisingly good shape, once you open it up anyway. The outer case is a bit scratched but it still works. However, its cosmetic condition would probably be a problem for collectors so I doubt that this particular specimen is worth very much. They occasionally turn up on ebay. I have seen good boxed examples going for as much as £30, so it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for them at car boot sales and antique fairs and I am pleased to say that there is a small band of collectors preserving this important but rarely explored back water of the electronic games market. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1982

Original Price                   £10.00?

Value Today?                   £5.00 0211

Features:                          35mm LCD screen, sound on/off, right and left player control, reset & game speed buttons

Power req.                        built-in solar cell

Weight:                             80 x 66 x 15mm 

Dimensions:                      53g

Made in:                           Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     6


Amstrad CPC 464 Colour, 1984

Credit for kick-starting the personal computer revolution in the UK during the late 1970s and early 80s usually goes to Clive Sinclair with his range of ZX machines. I’m not about to dispute that, but Sinclair’s undoubted popularity tends to overshadow the huge contributions made by other manufacturers, including of course Amstrad.

 

Alan Sugar’s particular talent was to cut through the crap and deliver affordable, well thought out products that mostly worked fairly well. The CPC 464 was a prime example, whilst other PC manufacturers had you messing around with optional cassette decks, TV modulators and lots of tangly cables Amstrad’s offering came with the tape deck built in, and its own dedicated colour (or mono green screen) monitor, so you didn’t have to tie up the family TV. That was a really big deal because back then most households only had one telly. You could even buy an adaptor that turned the Amstrad monitor into a TV, now that was something!

 

The CPC 464 was nothing special in computing terms, it was based on the ubiquitous Zilog Z80 processor that most other PCs at the time were using, it ran at 40MHz, there was a useful 42kb of user RAM a\available and it had decent graphics and audio facilities, plus a good assortment of ports for peripherals. It’s main selling point, though was that it attracted a lot of interest from the games companies so there was a really good selection of software available, which helped it to sell over 2 million units in the 6 years it was in production.

 

I have to admit that back then I wasn’t a fan, I was into the more versatile Commodore and Atari products, but I can see the appeal of the 464 and looking back at it now it’s easy to see why it was so successful.

 

I picked this one up at a flea market in Brighton and it cost me £10, for another tenner I could have ad the monitor as well, though the chap selling it was fairly certain it wasn’t working, and I had my hands full. It’s in pretty good shape and it still boots up, though I haven’t got around to getting hold of any programs so a full test run will have to wait.

 

What Happened to it?

The CPC 464 went the way of all non-PC home computers, by the late 1980s the IBM PC and Microsoft’s DOS operating system had begin their takeover of the computer market. Amstrad went on to build PCs as well but nor before they’d had a successful run with their classic PCW word processor. Sinclair, Commodore, Atari, Tandy and many others limped on to the mid 80s but the open licensing of the IBM design, which allowed just about anyone to set up business as a computer manufacturer, and the standardisation of Microsoft’s operating system wiped out most of the competition (Apple being the only notable exception), Although a lot of CPC 464s were made my guess is that most of them ended up in skips, but they’re by no means rare and they turn up regularly on ebay and in car boot sales for a few pounds. They could become collectable one day but I suggest that you go for a pristine working example, with a monitor and plenty of software.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1984

Original Price                   £400

Value Today?                   £10 0211

Features:                          Zilog Z80 8-bit CPU, 64kb RAM, 16kb video RAM, 640 x 200 (2 colour), 320 x 200 (4 colour)  160 x 200 (16 colour), 3-channel sound, Ports: printer, bus, joystick, floppy, monitor, headphone, power, built-in cassette deck

Power req.                        5 volts DC (external mains adaptor)

Weight:                             2.5kg

Dimensions:                     570 x 65 x 165mm (whd)

Made in:                           Korea

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    2


Binatone Colour TV Game Mk6 01-4761, 1976

For a short while, back in the mid 1970s, whilst working for Ferguson I had a profitable sideline building and selling video games. They were based on a groundbreaking General Instruments AY-38-500 video game chip – basically an entire video game on a single chip -- and featured a couple variations on the classic tennis or ‘Pong’ game. I was able to buy the chips for £10 a piece and sell completed games for £40. It was a nice little earner, until the likes of Binatone got in on the act… Within a few months those GI chips had flooded the market and the world and his wife was churning out cheap video games, in some cases selling them for less than I was paying for the chips.

 

Binatone got into the video games market quite early on and the Mk6 game we’re looking at here was a ‘step up’ model, featuring a colour display and 6 games. Well, it was actually two games with 3 variations. Tennis, Squash and Football are all simple bat and paddle games, and Target and Shooting are basically a block of light bouncing around the screen, that you shoot with the supplied ‘gun’. Including the gun with the outfit was a clever piece of marketing and on many games of the time they were sold as optional extras. Calling the game colour was a bit crafty too as all that was coloured was the background, the ball and paddles were still white.

 

Other features that made this model so popular were the slick case design, it could be battery powered or run from the mains adaptor, it had a built in speaker and there was an apparent wealth of game options, for varying the speed and angle of the ‘ball’, changing the bat size and auto or manual serve. It looked very sophisticated but in reality it was just a poor-man’s alternative to the much more expensive cartridge programmable games like the Atari VCS, which had just begin to appear.

 

What Happened to It?

Games like the Mk6 were destined to have a fairly short shelf life. The price of cartridge programmable games fell quite quickly in the late 70s as new models arrived and competition grew and the once compelling allure of very basic games like Pong and its ilk soon wore off. Ironically in the past couple of years they’ve made a bit of a comeback.

 

This particular one was found at a local car boot sale and I managed to haggle it down from a rather optimistic £10 to a fiver. The condition is very good, it is complete with its original box and foams and it all works so that was a fair price, but I have seen them selling on ebay for just a couple of pounds and you can take it as read that they were in very large numbers. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that first generation games like this one could turn out to be quite a good long-term investment but they are plentiful and you can afford to be choosy about the condition. Also, be aware that with Digital TV juts over the horizon, in a few years you may find it difficult to find something to plug it into…


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1977

Original Price                   £25

Value Today?                   £5 0111

Features:                          Colour display, 6 games (Tennis, Squash–Practice, Squash, Football, Target, Shooting), switchable sound, speed, angle, bat size, serve, auto/manual serve, two paddle controllers and light gun supplied.

Power req.                        6 x C cell/9-volt DC adaptor

Weight:                             0.9kg

Dimensions:                      280 x 210 x 80mm (whd)

Made in:                           Hong Kong

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     3


Cambridge Z88 Notebook Computer 1987

In the world of computing the current flavours of the month  are tablet PCs and small notebooks, or ‘netbooks’. They save space and weight by using solid-state memory and plug-in memory modules instead of a hard drive. They mostly run specialised operating systems (proprietary versions of Linux) that load quickly and some come bundled with office software suites or apps and usually manage to run for several hours, between charges.

 

What goes around comes around and over twenty years ago Sir Clive Sinclair launched a compact notebook PC, called the Cambridge Z88. It had an A4 footprint, weighed less than 1kg, came with a suite of office applications, used solid state memory instead of a hard drive, data and software are stored on plug-in memory expansion modules, it comes on more or less instantly and runs for a whopping 20 hours on a set of standard 4AA batteries

 

Okay, so some things have improved and the Z88 screen is a touch narrow. In fact it can only display 8-lines of text, though you would be surprised how easy it is to use for routine tasks like word processing, though it could be difficult to read in some lighting conditions. Otherwise it really is quite civilised; the rubber keyboard is actually very good and there’s a proper serial port so it can communicate with other PCs, printers and modems.

 

The Z88 had a chequered history. The original idea, back in the early 1980s was to develop a portable version of the hugely popular Spectrum, but by the mid 80s this had evolved into a portable computer called Pandora, which then, after a number of revisions became the Z88. But by that time Sinclair Research was in dire financial straits, thanks largely to the ill-fated C5 electric vehicle and the computer division was sold to Amstrad. In 1986 Clive Sinclair formed Cambridge Computers and the Z88 was finally unveiled to the press in February 1987.

 

It was an instant hit and I bought this very one soon after the launch for the not inconsiderable sum of £300 (I also bought several EPROM memory modules and an UV ‘eraser’ device, so they could be re-used). This machine proved ideal for press trips and I must have wrote hundreds of articles on it during long flights and sleepless nights in distant hotel rooms. It has probably been around the world several times and it never failed me once. Much to my astonishment after lying dormant in my loft for at least 10 years, it powered up first time!

 

What Happened To It?

Production finally came to an end in 1989 but in that relatively short time thousands were sold and believe it or not, there is a hardy band of enthusiasts still using them. Over the years there’s been a steady stream of software and hardware upgrades but by the late 80s Cambridge Computers was in trouble again, the company was sold and Sir Clive turned his attention to electrically powered bikes. Without further development it was doomed and in any case the Z88 was being overtaken by portable and laptop PCs that by then were becoming smaller, and cheaper, and more capable. Nevertheless it would take until the late 90s before really small computers, like the Toshiba Libretto, came anywhere near matching the Z88 for size, weight and portability.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1987

Original Price                   £230

Value Today?                   £50 1210

Features:                          Zilog Z80 processor, 128kb ROM, 32kb static RAM, (expandable to 3.5Mb), ‘OZ’ operating system, Pipedream word processor/spreadsheet, database, diary, calendar, calculator, alarm, file manager, data terminal, print manager, BASIC, 640 x 64 pixel LCD display, built in speaker

Power req.                        4 x AA cell (mains adaptor supplied)

Weight:                             0.8kg

Dimensions:                      293 x 207 x 24 mm

Made in:                            England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      6


AlphaTantel Prestel Terminal 1979

It is said that there’s nothing new under the Sun and this little box dating from very early 1980s proves it, as far as data communications are concerned. A good ten years before the Internet went public it was possible to download information, software and play games through a phone line and display it on a TV or monitor screen.

 

Prestel or ViewData as it was generically known was developed by the British Post Office in the 1970s. It was an interactive video text system, loosely based on Teletext technology, sharing the same 40 x 24 text character display format.

 

Prestel users had to pay a subscription to access information and a number of journalists (and I was one of them) were recruited by ‘IPs' or Information Providers to generate the content for the system. This ranged from the latest news and stock information to simple games, technology articles (my department) and buyer’s guides. Prestel could also be used to send messages to other subscribers -- early email -- there were forums and what we would now call chat lines and users could even upload their own personal pages (forerunners of YouTube, MySpace)

 

The AlphaTantel unit here was used to input and upload material to IP via the main server computer in London; this was then edited and  ‘mirrored’ on a number of regional servers on a network that is uncannily similar to the Internet (albeit on a much smaller scale).

 

As you can see it has a crude calculator style keyboard and entering more than a few lines of text was a long and tedious business. On the plus side it was quite easy to use and all it needed was a mains connection and a telephone socket (old style multi-way jack); the TV connected to a aerial socket on the back or if you were really flash you could use a monitor as it has an RGB output socket. It had a built-in modem, which dialled up the server and established the connection at a blistering 1200 baud. There was also a printer port and a DIN socket for connecting the unit to an audio cassette recorder, for recording data.

 

What Happened to it?

Quite simply the Post office and the various IPs were greedy and priced it out of business. Substantial hardware costs and subscription charges were on top of normal call rates when you were online, so you had to be fairly well off, especially if the call involved a long distance connection. On top of that most IPs charged by the page, up to 99 pence in some cases (and that was when a quid was worth something…).

 

Prestel hung around for around 10 years and the Post Office finally closed it down in 1991, not that anyone noticed. Nevertheless, this now forgotten technology laid the foundations of the Internet and the next time you hear about some whizzy new web feature there is a fair chance that Prestel was doing it twenty years ago.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                   1979

Original Price              £200

Value Today?              £100 1110

Features:                     QWERTY keyboard, built-in 1200/75 baud modem, 15-pin D-Sub printer port, RGB video out, RF video out, tape/data adaptor port

Power req.                   220-230 volt AC mains

Weight:                        2.4kg

Dimensions:                270 x 55 x 170 (very approx)

Made in:                      UK Tantel Products, Ely)

Rarity:                          9 (1 = common, 10 = Hen's teeth)


Tomy Electronic Soccer 1980

Also known as Electronic Striker this handheld electronic game from Japanese toy maker Tomy first appeared around 1980, according to several handheld games sites, and I'm not about to argue with the experts. I vaguely remember this game being on the market but due to a lack of interest in the game, real and handheld, it wasn't one that I ever reviewed, let alone owned.

 

The actual game is pretty naff; the console is designed to look like a miniature stadium with three rows of red LEDs, beneath the pitch, representing the ball. The player's job is to direct he ball into the opponents goal, by tapping three direction buttons, and to prevent it reaching their own goal with a fourth Defence button. Scores are shown on a twin 7-segment digital display. Options are one and two player games and Pro 1 and 2 levels, which alter the speed. The game is accompanied by typically tinkly tunes and sound effects, which you can't switch off.

 

Build quality is pretty good, it was meant to take a fair amount of abuse and I guess fun for kids of 10 and under to play. I found this one in Brighton Station Market recently for £1.50. The case was okay but the batteries had been left in too long and there were signs of corrosion. Fortunately it wasn't too deep seated and I was able to remove it, and once the contacts were cleaned up it fired up straight away.

 

What Happened to it?

Like all handheld games of the late 70s and early 80s they provided a brief diversion for those who couldn't afford video games, but as soon as the prices stated to fall, in the mid 80s, single game consoles like this one vanished almost overnight. Of course handheld games did survive but only thanks to better LCD screens and cartridge programmability, which meant that you didn't have to get bored playing one game over and again.  

 

Although the game seems tame and slow by today's standards these little boxes of tricks are great fun to collect and I predict they will become much sought after in the next few years. They represent a real milestone in the history of electronic entertainment. Not many will have survived but those that do often sell for next to nothing, but probably not for much longer...


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                        1980

Original Price                   £15

Value Today?                   £25 1011

Features:                          1 or 2 players, Pro 1 & 2 speed levels, twin 7-segment score display, sound effects

Power req.                       3 x AA & 1 x PP3

Weight:                            0.3g

Dimensions:                     220 x 150 x 40mm

Made in:                          Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     6


Vanity Fair Electron Blaster 1979

Hand-held ‘video’ games were all the rage in the late 1970s and early 80s for the simple reason that real video games were still eye-wateringly expensive, and not very portable. The Electron Blaster, made by the Taiwanese company Vanity Fair was a typical example, based on the incredibly popular Taito Space Invaders game that had appeared on arcades video games only a year earlier. Electron Blaster game was one of several identical games, other popular variants were CGL’s Galaxy Invader, Gakken Invader and Fire Away, which was sold exclusively in Radio Shack stores.

 

The game was housed in a futuristic looking case, dominated by the narrow green fluorescent display. It was simple to play, aliens dropped down the screen, accompanied by some cheesy sound effects and your job was to shoot them, before they shot you or made it to the bottom of the screen. The ‘gun’ was aimed using the joystick and fired by pressing the red fire button; there was a choice of three difficulty levels, which altered the speed at which the aliens moved. Extra points could be gained by shooting a spaceship, which flew across the top of the screen, and the object of the game was to destroy as many aliens as possible, without loosing any lives, and score the maximum 199 points in as short a time as possible. At the time these games kept us amused for hours, though now, with the benefit of hindsight and a highly-trained fire button thumb it seems absurdly easy to beat.   

 

What Happened to It?

Hand held games never really went away though basic single-game, single player devices like Electron Blaster declined in popularity throughout the 80s and were eventually blown away by programmable games ‘consoles’, like the classic Nintendo Gameboy, which first appeared in 1989. This one still works and is in pretty good shape for its age. I picked it up at a market in Brighton a couple of years ago for 50 pence. This type of gadget has been overlooked for far too long and I suspect they could become sought after. Definitely a future collectible and pristine examples can still be found, sometimes with their original boxes for very little money.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1979

Original Price                   £19.99

Value Today?                   £3 0910

Features:                          Flourescent display, three difficulty levels, on/off reset switch, external DC connector  
Power req.                        4 x AA cell

Weight:                             0.4kg

Dimensions:                      245 x 125 x 45 mm

Made in:                           Taiwan

Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest):     4


 

 

 

 

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